British writer Alice Oswald’s appearance at the Whitney Humanities Center on Wednesday was billed in the WHC’s publicity materials as a “reading,” but it was clear from the very beginning of her performance that Oswald had no intentions to read. Professor Emily Greenwood introduced her as “a classicist, a poet and a gardener, in no particular order,” and her latest book, which she performed from memory in its entirety, leaves me with few doubts about her qualifications in any of these three capacities.
“Memorial: An Excavation of the ‘Iliad’” occupies that radiant and fruitful grey area between translation and adaptation of the kind that has made Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson famous on this side of the Atlantic. In Oswald’s bold retelling — described by the author in her book’s preface as “a translation of the ‘Iliad’s’ atmosphere, not its story” — Homer’s capacious epic is stripped down to a brutal and brilliantly direct catalog of the deaths of the tale’s minor characters, alternating with lush and lyrical similes, most of which are drawn from the natural world for which Oswald displays such strong affinity.
Before diving into “Memorial,” Oswald recited for us the brief poem “Hymn to Iris,” saying she felt she could use the goddess’s help: “a three-moment blessing for all bridges / may impossible rifts be often delicately crossed.” I live in New Haven in the year 2012; Homer lived in Greece in the eighth century B.C. I cannot read Greek, and the Classics too often feel impossibly far from my age, my interests, my politics. As Oswald warmed up, gaining momentum with each lovely line, I was eager for her to bridge that distance. With the hymn, she prepared us for crossing.
Oswald then announced that she would be performing “Memorial” in its entirety (with the exception of the long list of names that opens it), which would take about an hour and a quarter from start to finish. Acknowledging this to be unusual for a contemporary poetry reading, Oswald encouraged us to tune in and out at will. I could tell after the hymn that I would do no such thing, and remained rapt until the performance’s very last line.
“Memorial” has received some overwhelmingly positive reviews since its release, but it has also been met with some dismissive backlash from more conservative Classicists.
“Alice Oswald’s ‘Memorial’ is a translation of the ‘Iliad’ that chucks the dull stuff (the plot points, all that talking) and retains the choice bits (the violence, the similes),” complains Jason Guriel in the PN Review, a semiannual poetry journal. “It is Homer cutting to the chase — Homer cut to the quick.”
These preservationists seem to be baiting us for an argument of which no one, least of all Oswald, is interested in playing the other side; Oswald is clearly committed to the text from which she works, and her project is always a reverent one. If these critics had been at Wednesday’s performance, they may have realized that they have nothing to worry about — this was oral poetry, and Oswald reminded me of no one more strongly than of my mind’s image of Homer. If Homer were a British woman with a passion for gardening, of course.
Oswald’s performance was more oratory than soliloquy, achieving that somber and convincing balance between sermon and political speech that I imagine to have been Homer’s own mode. One soldier, Oswald told us, complained of his bow, “It has proved such a nothingness,” and I remembered the “Iliad” to have been composed as a kind of history, the soldiers’ deaths a kind of fact. With Oswald delivering the news, I was struck for the first time by the event of each soldier’s death. The book earns its title, and I listened as each soldier was rescued from anonymity for his heartbreaking handful of lines and laid back to rest before Oswald marched on to the next. I believed in them; I mourned.