Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad by Alice Oswald

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We remember the generals from almost any war. In the US, we often remember them because of the way they led soldiers to “glorious victory,” or if that’s too simplistic, through difficult times—and to their graves: Washington, Grant, Sherman, Pershing, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton, Schwarzkopf, Petraeus. We give them nicknames (not always complimentary): Black Jack, Blood-n-Guts, Little Napoleon, Old Wooden Head, Rough and Ready, Stonewall, Stormin’ Norman, Swamp Fox.

We raise statues to them, we write biographies of them, we (now) retire them to television to serve as military experts, we revere and vilify them. For a while we elected them to the presidency, though we haven’t done that since 1956. Their names appear in history books and on AP exams, generation after generation. They become myth.

Only recently have we started trying to find ways to memorialize the other people involved in conflicts. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC lists the names of those fallen or missing in combat with no regard to rank or fame. Just name after name, in the order in which they died, etched into the reflective basalt rock wall which swallows you as you make your way down the path toward the monument’s center.

Alice Oswald’s Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad is written in this spirit of remembrance of the common soldier. Even people only vaguely familiar with Greek mythology recognize some of the kings from Homer’s epic—Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Priam, Odysseus, Aeneas, Menelaus, Paris—but how many could identify Protesilaus, the first Greek to die at Troy?

It’s obvious from the time one picks up the book that this isn’t a translation of Homer’s epic, at least not in the way we commonly use the term. It’s a slim volume, with short lines and lots of white space on the pages. The Iliad I read as an undergraduate (Fagles’ translation) was doorstop-hefty, with hexametric lines that threatened to spill over the margins, even in 10-point type. Oswald has sliced away almost everything famous from what is usually presented as Homer’s original, and has left the reader with a haunting, violent, and yet incredibly beautiful look at the people who are usually ignored in any discussion of The Iliad—or indeed in any war.

The first eight pages of Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad contain nothing but names, a list from Protesilaus to Hector. The names, 200 in all, are starkly presented in all caps, as though they had been carved into the stone of the page.

PROTESILAUS
ECHEPOLUS
ELEPHENOR
SIMOISUS
LEUKOS
DEMOCOON
DIORES
PIROUS
IDAEUS

No introductions, no explanations—just name after name engulfing the reader. The lack of context is important—as with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, most visitors don’t recognize more than a handful of names, if that, and yet the power in the presence of those names, column after column, is undeniable.

In Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, Protesilaus appears in line 796 of book 2, well after the confrontation between Agamemnon and Achilles, after Odysseus and Nestor have attempted to hold the Greek coalition together. Oswald, instead, starts with Protesilaus, which seems appropriate, since he is the first Greek to die at Troy.

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

Protesilaus, according to Ovid’s Heroides, leapt ashore aware of the oracle which had decreed that the first Greek to touch Trojan soil would be the first to die, and after killing four Trojans, he is slain by Hector. In Homer’s story, this is a side note, perhaps a passage thrown in during an oral recitation as a way to coax an extra coin from a listener who hailed from Phylace. The important story, according to Homer, plays out between the kings and princes—Agamemnon and Achilles, Hector and Paris—not to mention the gods, who join the fray on both sides.

Oswald’s version refocuses the questions about violence in the service of predestined outcomes by emphasizing a different set of characters. The people she’s most interested in are the ones without the privilege to question such matters. Even Pandarus, a captain and a wealthy man, seems trapped into the war.

PANDARUS son of Lycaon had a wife at home
In his high-roofed house in the foothills of Ida
He was captain of Zelea and he and his men
Used to drink the black raw water from the river
He was a rich man a master bowman
Eleven war cars in his stables brand new beautifully made
With rugs and thoroughbred horses
He couldn’t bear to risk them in the War
He went on foot to Troy with nothing but his bow
But that was no good to him
The arrows kept flying off at angles
If I ever get home he said
And see my wife and my high-roofed house
May a stranger cut off my head if I don’t
Smash this bow and throw it with my own hands
Into the fire it has proved such a nothingness
But he climbed up nevertheless next to Aeneas
He charged at Diomedes and a spear
Thrown by Diomedes pushed hard by Athene
Hit him between the eyes it split-second
Splintered his teeth cut through his tongue broke off his jaw
And came out clean through the chin

Pandarus seems to realize that he has nothing to gain and everything to lose by going to this war. He was wealthy and comfortable. He even seems to recognize that he’s doomed when his bow, which had no doubt provided him with some of his riches, betrays him, sending off arrows at angles. And none of it matters—the outcome of this war had been determined by the gods. Troy was going to fall, for the benefit of gods and kings, and men like Pandarus had to die to make it happen.

By focusing on these stories instead of the typical major characters like Hector and Achilles, Oswald’s version accentuates the cruelty of war. In Homer’s Iliad, the only major Greeks to die are Ajax and Patroclus (though Achilles does not survive the war, he does not die in The Iliad). The human cost is borne, as it usually is, by the “grunts,” the foot soldiers. The “generals” return home, and while some meet future tragedy—Agamemnon is murdered by his wife and her lover, for example—they are hailed as victorious, and remembered.

It’s an appropriate—even important—way to look at The Iliad today, since we are constantly engaged in a debate over the human cost of war. On March 31, 2003, 11 days after the start of hostilities in what would come to be known as Gulf War II, The PBS Newshour aired its first “Honor Roll” of US service members killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the early days of the war, I watched the Honor Roll when I could, always in fear that I would recognize names. A number of my fraternity brothers from my undergraduate days were in the Army Reserves—working class guys for whom a drill paycheck and the GI Bill went a long way toward helping them finish a Bachelor’s degree and cut a path to the middle class. They were patriotic men, after a fashion, but mostly they were looking for a way to finish school. Many joined in 1998. Most went to Afghanistan in 2002, just before their enlistment was to expire.

I wonder how many of the people listed in the Honor Roll since 2003, or whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall fit the descriptions of those Oswald has decided to memorialize:

EPICLES a Southerner from sunlit Lycia
Climbed the Greek wall remembering the river
That winds between his wheatfields and his vineyards
He was knocked backwards by a rock
And sank like a diver
The light in his face went out

or

ILIONEUS an only child ran out of luck
He always wore that well-off look
His parents had a sheep farm
They didn’t think he would die
But a spear stuck through his eye
He sat down backwards
Trying to snatch back the light
With stretched out hands

or

And DEMUCHUS
LAOGONUS
DARDANUS

And TROS begging for his life
But his life was over

All of these stories end the same way: in death. It’s not heroic or glorious. It’s terrifying. It’s exactly what we should expect.

Oswald follows most of the biographies of the memorialized with similes, such as these lines that follow the section about Tros:

Like when two animals have found a little luckiness
Of clear-running water in the mountains
One dies and the other drinks it

Eavan Boland, in the Afterword to this epic, writes “Oswald lays the lyric world beside violent death, like someone putting summer flowers in a coffin, a reminder of all that’s been lost.” But these flowers aren’t buried with the dead. In fact, the dead aren’t even buried—they’re rotting on the battlefield. This memorial has not been sanitized of the violence which necessitated it in the first place. No marble statues, men on horseback rearing, sword or hat in the air. No nicknames which make light of or obscure the blood these men ordered spilled.

No, what starts as a list of 200 names ends as a statement about the brevity—and by extension—the value of human life.

Like when god throws a star
And everyone looks up
To see that whip of sparks
And then it’s gone

The end is violent, the burning of a meteorite as it disintegrates in the atmosphere. We can’t get away from it; violence is a low hum in the background of our daily lives. But we can remember, and be honest in the remembering. When we value human life—all human life, not just the privileged and powerful—we are less likely to accept at face value the claims made by the powerful that violent force is the best response to any conflict. Alice Oswald’s Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad asks us to confront that violence and resurrect the forgotten stories about those who sacrificed the most in the Trojan War.

We, as a society, have moved away from the glorification of generals as heroes, as examples for moral living, as near-mythic creatures. In the US, the generals still get their moments of glory, their names at times mentioned as potential presidential or vice-presidential candidates (Colin Powell, Wesley Clark, David Petraeus), but they don’t tend to get the statues their predecessors once got, and once they’ve been retired for a while, their names slip from the collective memory to be replaced by whoever has risen to their rank.

Perhaps we don’t lionize anyone the way we used to, or our collective attention span is just too short to make modern mythological beings (outside of entertainers), or we don’t have the taste for bloody battle our forebears did. During the Civil War, both sides would occasionally lose more soldiers in a single battle than the US has lost in the entire Second Gulf War, which was so unpopular that by 2008, opposition to it helped propel a little known junior Senator from Illinois to the Democratic party nomination and then the Presidency. (The public’s distaste for blood extends mainly to US troops; drone attacks that kill foreign civilians are still generally accepted by the public. We have work to do when it comes to valuing the lives of the people we categorize as “other.”) It suggests that we are becoming less interested in creating “great men” and more interested in not losing our neighbors, especially over something most consider frivolous.

The Trojan War, after all, was fought over a marital dispute, one that Homer’s text never exactly clears up. Was Helen abducted by Paris or did she run away with him or was she forced to leave Menelaus by a goddess who owed Paris a favor? And why did Protesilaus or Pandarus or Epicles have to die because of it? The Vietnam War wasn’t fought over a marital dispute, but the official reasons for the conflict didn’t make much more sense. The same can be said about the reasons for Gulf War 2. Why did 58,272 soldiers have to die in Vietnam? Or nearly 4,500 in Iraq since 2003?

This impulse to remember the regular person extends into the way we are now reacting to mass violence in the US. Over the last few years, every time a gunman goes on a killing spree, regardless of the way the news media reports these stories, people use social media to list the names of the dead and injured, imploring their friends to remember the victims and to deliberately shut the name of the gunman out of public discourse. It’s a reaction against the idea that a person can become famous by doing great damage to a community. “If fame is what you want,” the public seems to say, “you will get no satisfaction here.” It’s hard to imagine a modern-day Billy the Kid emerging in today’s world as a hero, no matter how violent some social critics and doomsayers suggest our society is.

More and more, we seem to be recognizing that the lives of working class people, of the underprivileged, are valuable in their own rights and shouldn’t just be sacrificed on a whim, all to glorify generals or warlords. Our lives are short, a “whip of sparks” as Oswald put it, too short to be wasted carelessly by powerful people on a cause some may feel is less than noble. They deserve better than to be piled up so that “great men” can stand atop them and declare their glory. They deserve, as Alice Oswald so beautifully demonstrates here, their own memorial.


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →