This semester, for a graduate poetry workshop, I was tasked with reviewing a poetry collection. I chose Memorial, by Alice Oswald, and have decided to post it here for all to see, and also because most journals aren’t interested in reviews of books not written in the last few years.
The US edition of Alice Oswald’s 2011 poetry collection Memorial is subtitled “a version of Homer’s Iliad,” but the word “version” fails to capture the scope of Oswald’s epic. The original British subtitle uses the word “Excavation,” which is closer to the truth but still misses a key element. Instead, deployment more accurately describes how the Iliad features in the book, as a point of reference rather than a point of content. In this sense, like the dozens of similes repeated in pairs throughout the book, Memorial is like the Iliad, rather than a renewal of the Iliad itself.
Despite foregrounding the names of the 200 dead who come to populate Memorial, one of the most poignant moments is about namelessness, when the speaker declares “Somebody’s husband somebody’s daughter’s husband/Stood there stunned by fear/Like a pillar like a stunted tree” (Oswald 45). The sudden namelessness here is jarring in context, suggesting a more universal specificity: the dead are neither no-body nor some-one, but a mix of the two, a some-body, neither specifically named nor generally embodiable.
This is why the repetition of similes between characters’ biographies is so crucial for the lives of the commemorated. In one example, the character Asius “couldn’t stop/Having ridden those shining horses/Over the Selleis and the Simois/And all the stony way from Arisbe to Troy/Like when winnowers bang their shovels down” (44-45). To have a life, to have lived a life, is to have a referent elsewhere, or as Judith Butler puts it, “when attachment takes place, it does so in relation to persons and institutional conditions that may well be violent, impoverishing, and inadequate” (Butler 45). In Oswald’s world, death is rendered meaningful because it can be located through simile, because the dead live on in that to which they are compared, in a cycle of life, death, and comparison to something still left in the waking world.
One consequence of the book’s persistent lack of punctuation is that the story never stops with one or another character’s death, at least not syntactically. The only endings and beginnings come with line breaks and stanza breaks, which designate lives and scenes. The repetition of stanzas, one after another, and always as a simile suggests a constant recycling of grief.
This repetition also universalizes the act of trying to articulate grief, always repeated, always stuttered, always made necessary again by yet another death. No matter how gorgeously one describes death—“Like smoke leaving the earth” (51), or “Like the shine of a sea swell” (42), “Like suddenly it thunders” (16), “Like restless wolves never run out of hunger” (78), “Like when a lion comes back to a forest’s secret rooms” (67), no comparison seems apt enough to fully grasp its totality.
Oswald drags the reader into the awful challenge of her own book: When all 200 men are given equally beautiful similes through which we come to understand their lives and deaths, they start to flatten and blend, and despite the consistent resonance and talent of her craft, Oswald cannot keep the deaths of her characters entirely unique. They converge and become indistinguishable.
Finally, this fatal flaw implicates the reader’s inability to grieve for the dead, as all 200 characters becomes, in the last analysis, mostly forgettable when the act of grief overshadows those for whom we grieve. We can’t remember the 200 dead in Memorial. How, then, are we supposed to mourn for the dead of our own wars, let alone our own daily violent conflicts that now play out in our schools and shopping malls? How many poems can we write to keep up with the dead? Oswald is vicious and unforgiving in forcing us to confront the fact that we simply cannot; that despite our best efforts, tragedy is outrunning poetry.
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. Verso, 2006.
Oswald, Alice. Memorial. W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.