Caught by the River

Alice Oswald – Memorial

Will Burns | 6th October 2011

review by Will Burns

The first poem and indeed book of Alice Oswald’s that I read was Dart and I suspect like a few readers here, it was on Jeff’s wholehearted and effusive recommendation. A recommendation that I have to say I remain extremely grateful for, as I’m sure anyone else who, no doubt spurred on by Jeff’s fervour, has enjoyed Oswald’s magnificent river opus will agree. And like that bonafide Caught By The River favourite, Oswald’s latest is again a single book length poem, an extended homage, but this is a work dedicated to an ancient story rather than an ancient river; a concentrated, distilled translation of the “atmosphere” of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad.

Although the sources may seem radically different, there is common ground between the two works — like Dart there is a distinct ghostliness; literally here, as the poem becomes progressively more haunted by the looming spectres of the named dead; some 200 soldiers in the opening verses. But there are also similar ghostly poetic voices, in Memorial poignantly deployed in the echoing simile stanzas that weave in and out of the short, intense biographical descriptions of the soldiers and their deaths. These passages, and indeed the whole poem, are urgent and spare, communicating a quiet dignity that resonates beautifully with the source material, despite the author’s assertion that she wants the poem to exist with a coherence of its own, independent of its forebear. And indeed, this is a work that stands up perfectly well without the context of Homer’s poem; becoming of itself an exquisitely wrought, increasingly harrowing funeral march, the power of Oswald’s descriptions growing with each death, a “faultless fall” into the next world.

Oswald uses the word darkness often, turning the word into a funereal chant motif, offset throughout the poem by a rich, other-worldly light: “And see the fields flickering ahead of him/ Lit up blue by the strangeness of God.” The stately pace of layer upon layer of delicately juxtaposed ideas and apparently opposed figures quickening throughout the poem until the final dozen pages contain just single stanza similes of breathtaking elegant beauty married to brooding violence and muscular simplicity.

The poem is long, yes, but is still a shortened, blazing version of the story as told by Homer, and hence both as bright and truncated as the lives of the young men whose sudden deaths are described with such poise and precision here. And there lies the success of the work, for Oswald writes that she wishes to “capture the enargeia” of Homer, and by removing the narrative elements of the original epic, the reader is forced to engage with a set of heartbreaking and incredibly powerful descriptions; not only of the manner of the violent deaths themselves, but within and around those deaths, the lives — lives defined by vigour and energy. And it is on such apparent contradictions, such mirrored ideas that both Homer’s Iliad and Oswald’s Memorial are built; towering monuments both, to life as it is found in such close proximity to death – a “wobbling wagon-load of flowers”, a “rainbow shining a warning to the world”.

Memorial (Faber & Faber poets, 96pp, hardback), can be bought from the Caught by the River shop, priced £10.99