In a preface – which is also something of an apologia – Alice Oswald describes her new version of the Iliad as ‘a translation of [the poem]’s atmosphere, not its story’. This encourages comparison with Christopher Logue’s War Music, but Memorial turns out to be quite different. Whereas Logue presents his work as a modern adaptation of Homer, Oswald is interested, she explains, in retrieving the Iliad’s enargeia or ‘bright unbearable reality’. Her idea is simple: she dispenses with narrative altogether and, in the tradition of lament poetry, concentrates on recording the names of the war dead and the manner of their deaths. These ‘biographies’ are interspersed with stanzas that replay each death using repeated similes: ‘Like the shine of a sea swell/Lifting and flattening silently/When water makes way for the wind/And dreams of its storms’ (Oswald writes especially well about wind and water).
As delightful as they are, these lines scarcely give a sense of the poem’s cumulative power, which builds from its poignant repetitions, its grounding in ceremony, praise and naming, and its underlying belief in poetry as incantation. Oswald forces the reader to submit to poetry’s earliest oral traditions – the