Fail­ure to recog­nise what is hu­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­drew Pip­pos

ASEN­SI­BLE in­tro­duc­tory para­graph for a re­view of a book based on The Iliad might say the great­est epic poem in Western lit­er­a­ture is about 28 cen­turies old and con­cerns an ab­surd and ex­haust­ing war be­tween Greeks and Tro­jans. About 240 named char­ac­ters die over the span of The Iliad’s 15,000 lines. Homer is ex­plicit: the bit player Euchenor, for ex­am­ple, dies when an ar­row lands in his ‘‘ ear and jaw be­neath’’.

The late stages of the Tro­jan War find He­len of Troy weav­ing a fig­ured ta­pes­try de­scrib­ing the bat­tles be­ing fought for her city. He­len blames her­self for the vi­o­lence — she’s the ob­ject of the war as well as its first au­thor, in a sense — and she makes this guilt bear­able with the idea her ta­pes­try con­sti­tutes a proper me­mo­rial to the dead.

The Iliad shows us that He­len’s ta­pes­try, an ana­logue for oral po­etry, will be re­placed by an epic poem. Al­ready grounded in Homer is the sense that sto­ries are some­how ad­dressed to a pre­cur­sor, and new adap­ta­tions of old tales are sim­ply nat­u­ral de­vel­op­ments, a pre­con­di­tion for the un­bro­ken lines of sto­ry­telling that help some cul­tures con­tinue to make sense.

Alice Oswald’s Me­mo­rial is an adap­ta­tion of Homer; in her words ‘‘ a trans­la­tion of The Iliad’s at­mos­phere, not its story’’. From the orig­i­nal Oswald takes the bat­tle scenes and ex­tended sim­i­les, leav­ing the quar­rels be­tween the Greeks, the gods, the ran­soms, all the kis­met of the Tro­jan War.

When a char­ac­ter dies in The Iliad we are told the name of the dead man, some bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tail, and the man­ner of his dy­ing. This rhythm of in­for­ma­tion is kept up by Oswald: ‘‘ 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 . . . It was no sur­prise when an ar­row pierced his neck / He recog­nised that prick of dark­ness.’’ Else­where a char­ac­ter dies and ‘‘ Now some­body has to tell his fa­ther / That ex­hausted man lean­ing on a wall / look­ing for his favourite son’’.

Me­mo­rial’s many pas­sages of bat­tles para­phrase Homer’s, min­gling also the di­men­sions of lament po­etry and the an­cient ca­su­alty list. Oswald’s book dwells in the mys­tery of hu­man cru­elty, bereft of op­ti­mistic con­clu­sions. But her poem does build a co­her­ent scene from the images of vi­o­lence: Me­mo­rial at times re­sem­bles an atroc­ity ex­hi­bi­tion, as its ti­tle de­clares, a thing pur­posed to ap­peal to the col­lec­tive

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