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Understanding Drained From His Skull

Updated: May 17, 2021

A review of today's reading 'Memorial. An Excavation of the Iliad' by Alice Oswald

pp 57-84 (end). Faber and Faber, 2011.

I am in the process of re-reading my Poetry Review magazines from 2009 onwards, this book was reviewed and I remembered I had a copy (sorry Alice) bought from a cheap new-book shop in Ilkley, so it seemed a good time to finally read it. I am very pleased I did.


The book reads a little like a Michael Bay film, cutting out all the boring bits and getting straight to the point. All the bangs and crashes, blood, guts and gore. Blood everywhere, and often no dull backstory. I remember the old war films I watched with my Dad, 'Tora, Tora, Tora', 'The Longest Day', 'The Dam Busters', where you have to sit through all the tedious build up before you finally get the action. Well this is book cuts out all the boring bits (I am joking) of The Iliad and just concentrates on the bits where people get killed. It is stark reading.


The book opens exactly as a war memorial. Like standing in Ypres looking at the chiselled role call of the dead. Seven and half pages of names, some unreadable. (I believe I skipped this bit.) Then the book starts with a breakdown of how each person dies, when this isn't clear, there is just the name. It is very powerful.


This said, presumably when The Iliad does give a method of death Oswald reports it. The scenarios have a sense of being a mini-parable, the very blood curdling, gruesome kind, that Jesus tended to avoid. These tales often get repeated word for word in a second verse that reemphasises the verse before. It's a great device for those of us with a wandering mind, if you drift, you get a second chance straight away.


These tales often get repeated word for word in a second verse that reemphasises the verse before. It's a great device for those of us with a wandering mind, if you drift, you get a second chance straight away. It is very powerful.


Memorial truly touches on the universality of war. Soldiers missing their wives back home. Father's missing their sons. People with previous reputation pointlessly killed. Mothers traumatised by their loss.


'Laothoë ...

Never saw her son again he was washed away

Now she can't look at the sea she can't think about

The bits unburied being eaten by fishes...'


Some men have extravagant details of their terrible demise, others just a a simple line. The short story emphasises the larger one. It is very powerful.


'EUPHORBAS died

Leaving his silver hairclip on the battlefield'

(...)

'And TROS begging for his life

But his life was over'


Then just as we get to the end before Hector is killed a motorbike is mentioned, though in my head, largely due to the Ancient Greek names, I had not thought of this as having been set in the present however modern the story of death in Wars can be. Hector despatched, the book ends on a series of epigraph-like poems, a whole page given over to a short verse, some just two lines long. These come as such a contrast to the book preceding it. They are a series of isolated metaphors, all commencing with the word 'Like...'


'Like leaves, who could write a history of leaves

The wind blows their ghosts to the ground

And the spring breathes new leaf in to the woods

Thousands of names thousands of leaves

When you remember them remember this

Dead bodies are their linage

Which matter no more than the leaves'


It is very powerful.


Not till writing this review did I notice the absence of punctuation, surprisingly this does not make the poem difficult to navigate in the slightest. Each line begins with a traditional poet's capital letter, and every name is spelt in capitals. Simple rules. Hence, the book has X-rated violence, but is a straight forward read. It shows war was as brutal in the days of the gods and heroes as it is today, and will for evermore be so.


See Faber and Faber


Also see Professor of Poetry | Faculty of English (ox.ac.uk)



Soundtrack for writing the review:


'The German Ocean' by 'The German Ocean.

SubmarineBroadcastingCompany.com

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