BookMark: Edward Hirsch on "Memorial"

March 8, 2015
Memorial Cover

My name is Edward Hirsch, I’m a poet. My two most recent book are Gabriel: A Poem, which is a book-length elegy for my son, and A Poet’s Glossary, which is a compendium of poetic terms.

The book I’d like to recommend is a book called Memorial, by the English poet Alice Oswald. She calls it a version of Homer’s Iliad. What Oswald had done is she’s taken the Iliad and she’s stripped it of it’s narrative. She lists all of the boys and men—young men, mostly—who’ve died, at the beginning of her book, and there are four or five pages of these. Then, what she does is dramatize the deaths of each of these figures, and she balances this with famous Homeric similes.


I’ll give you a sample. The way the book begins is:

 The first to die was Protesilaus
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus Iton Pteleus Antron
He died mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushed out clawing her face
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother
Took over command but that was long ago
He’s been in the black earth now for thousands of years

And that’s how the book proceeds. It just moves from figure to figure and you begin to understand The Iliad as a great anti-war poem. By taking away the narrative, by taking away the battles, by taking away what’s happened and just listing the figures who died and saying how they died, you get this communal elegy that gives you a sense of the devastations of war. And each of these figures comes alive for one moment for us, and the poem becomes—The Iliad becomes—a vast memorial.

Her name is Alice Oswald, and in this book, she’s given us a kind of reckless adaptation of The Iliad. And I think the book is a lyrical masterpiece of lamentation. Now when you read The Iliad as a whole, the losses are just part of the larger story. But when you read Oswald’s version of Homer’s Iliad then what you’re getting in this extraction is just the cost—just the people who died, just the dramatization of them, and what it felt like. It creates a tremendous communal portray of boys at war—or really, boys dying at war.