Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad
by Alice Oswald

Reviewed by Devin King


Published by Faber and Faber , 2011   |   112 pages

In the introduction to his translations of Guido Calvalcanti, Ezra Pound writes: “I have in my translations tried to bring over the qualities of Guido’s rhythm, not line for line, but to embody in the whole of my English some trace of that power which implies the man.” Pound’s translations are famous for being less about what we might normally think of as proper purpose of translation—conveying the underlying meaning of the words and phrases within the poem—and more about the attempt to convey the sound and breath of the original. Structure, sound, and style take center stage. Pound’s method is a form of table rapping: Calvalcanti speaks through the poem, translated through Pound, a body being brought back to life as speech.

Following in this tradition is UK based poet Alice Oswald’s Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad. Memorial is, essentially, a litany of every soldier killed in the Iliad, names typed in all caps (ODIOS, PHAESTUS, SCAMANDRIUS, etc.), accompanied by the description of their death. The book received some serious publicity when Oswald withdrew it from the prestigious T.S. Eliot prize competition – which she’d already won in 2002 for her second collection, Dart – a political act / critique of the fact that the prize’s sponsors were affiliated with an investment firm involved in hedge funds. As a reading of Memorial makes clear, the act was no false gesture. Oswald’s is an existential morality, one that has a perfect compliment in the total objectivity of the Iliad. She finds in the Iliad a body of text to be exhumed, and, in that body, other bodies, all to be reworked, pondered, experienced.

Memorial’s deaths don’t spin out sensually to further the ostensible subject of Homer’s original: Achilles’s pride, anger, and grief. Her content and her subject matter do not align in this obvious sense. Oswald’s is a political engagement, and Memorial reads accordingly, the structural and stylistic features employed in the service of an engagement with death and its resonances throughout the social and natural world. Her primary means of approach is to treat language through a lens, cleaning and minimizing, to bring forward hard edges and emphasize death’s stable quickness. With this comes subtle, beautiful distortion. Consider Robert Fagles’ translation – the current, standard recommendation for first readers of the Iliad – in its treatment of the death of Satnius:

…quick Little Ajax—
he lunged out and his spearhead skewered Satnius,
Enops’ son the nymph on the ford once bore
to Enops tending his flocks by Satniois’ banks…

So much movement! Ajax’s lunge is physical and propels the rhythm of the lines forward as the reader is violently transported to the Satniois’ banks. Here’s Oswald’s, tighter and cleaner, less rhythmic, ostensibly less poetic verse that, instead, subtracts (analytically, one could say) the action from the scene:

Who could be more ordinary than SATNIUS
The son of Water
When he died the River was so cold
You’d never think it was his mother

That chilling first line. What could be more ordinary than death on the battlefield? We’ve only been hearing about it since the dawn of the written word.

Back to the idea of Oswald’s as a Poundian translation. Though the two share an interest in how translations can come about, a lightness of touch separates them. Consider Oswald’s use of the word “irreverent” in her introduction, a description Pound would never give to himself:

My ‘biographies’ are paraphrases of the Greek, my similes are translations. However, my approach to translation is fairly irreverent. I work closely with the Greek, but instead of carrying the words over into English, I use them as openings through which to see what Homer was looking at. I write through the Greek, not from it—aiming for transluscence rather than translation.

Looking briefly at the Greek, unlike some of Pound and his followers’ methods, it does not really seem that Oswald is approaching her translation in any especially “material” sense–translation based on the way the original sounds or looks. Rather, it is as if Oswald has taken a literal translation of the Greek to capture precisely the contours of Homer’s images, from which she then subtracts and tightens various elements of the picture. Here’s a literal translation of Euchenor’s death, taken from the Perseus digital library:

A certain Euchenor there was, son of Polyidus the seer, a rich man and a valiant, and his abode was in Corinth. He embarked upon his ship knowing full well the deadly fate to be, for often had his old sire, good Polyidus, told it him, to wit, that he must either perish of dire disease in his own halls, or amid the ships of the Achaeans be slain by the Trojans; wherefore he avoided at the same time the heavy fine of the Achaeans and the hateful disease, that he might not suffer woes at heart. Him Paris smote beneath the jaw, under the ear, and forthwith his spirit departed from his limbs, and hateful darkness got hold of him.

And here’s Oswald’s:

EUCHENOR a kind of suicide
Carried the darkness inside him of a dud choice
Either he could die at home of sickness
Or at Troy of a spearwound
His mother was in tears
His father was in tears but
Cold as a coin he took the second option
Seeing as otherwise he’d have had to pay a fine
It was no surprise when an arrow pierced his neck
He recognized that prick of darkness

Notice the ending—“hateful darkness” vs. “prick of darkness,” a subtle reworking that speaks similarly, but utilizes consonance in the explosive hard c/k of “pri ck ” and “dark ness.” Or how Oswald emphasizes the foreknowledge of death in her shift of “knowing full well his deadly fate” to “a kind of suicide.” Or the simple repetition of “his mother was in tears/ his father was in tears.”

Interspersed amongst the deaths throughout Memorial are translations of Homeric similes, which pause the onslaught in unexpected stillness. The effect is odd, but powerful; it reinforces Oswald’s momentum. A description of death:

There stood ALCATHOUS and a spear
Knowing nothing of his wedding
Not knowing of his feelings or his wife’s face
Or her doting parents or her incredible needlework
That spear went straight through his heart
And began to tick tick tick but not for love

And then a simile:

Like a knife-winged hawk
Balanced on a cliff with no foothold
Not even a goat can climb there

One is reminded of Flaubert here, cutting away from Emma’s trysts to show a cow looing or the grass waving. The bodies that fall in the text, further abstracted by Homer’s figures of speech, are, instead made more concrete. Explored, that is, not for traditional narrative purpose, nor to portray the historical aspects of the battle of Troy, but to find something closer to that drive which underpins war and Western aggression, the body approaching and becoming death. Amidst the unceasing falling bodies, the similes, often tied to the natural world (hawk, goat, cliff, fly, etc.) appear as beacons of another existence—the natural world—just as violent, but without morality or meaning.

Strength of language furthering thought, Oswald’s is thought through the Iliad , rather than thought of the Iliad , a translation concerned with the text as a place for a sincere, poetic memorial that neither lauds nor simply lists. There is an immediacy of her poem like that of vision. Where Pound used his translations to imply Calvalcanti the author, Oswald implies Homer the poet but, moreso, his subject matter—dead bodies—and how they appear to fall, how he handles them as physical units that mark their grim duty. Oswald’s reading does not presume itself able to bring the fallen back to life, but rather shows the strange life that continues in the text itself.

Devin King is a writer, musician, and teacher working in Chicago, IL. His long poem, “CLOPS,” is out from the Green Lantern Press, Chicago, where he is now the poetry editor. A new chapbook, The Resonant Space , is out from The Holon Press, Chicago. Both are available at http://thepapercave.com. More at http://dancingyoungmenfromhighwindows.com.

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