War and Its Vast Plains of Blood

By Logan, William | International Herald Tribune, December 22, 2012 | Go to article overview

War and Its Vast Plains of Blood


Logan, William, International Herald Tribune


The British poet Alice Oswald's stripped-down adaptation of the "Iliad" emphasizes its gruesome fatalities.

Memorial. A Version of Homer's "Iliad." By Alice Oswald. 90 pages. W.W. Norton & Company, $24.95; Faber and Faber, Pounds 12.99.

The "Iliad" is the goriest of ancient poems. Homer doesn't sugarcoat the death of a hero, or even that of some insignificant Myrmidon. He's an anatomist of death, a forensic pathologist of the bronze spear and the bronze sword. The Greek and Trojan warriors meet their fates in ways violent, bloody and graphic -- had Greek battlefield surgeons existed, they could have used the "Iliad" as a textbook. Hollywood's violence is merely a weak imitation of what the Greeks recited for centuries.

In "Memorial," the British poet Alice Oswald has had the provocative idea of boiling down the poem to two of its most striking features: the gruesome fatalities and the similes that often lie in pastoral counterpoint to the action. Her version shifts the moral center of the poem from the anger of Achilles and the death of Hector to an oral history of the dead (in her fine phrase, an "oral cemetery"). The subtle portrayals of emotion, the strikingly modern psychology, the ancient tactics, the fate-haunted warriors -- all that life almost three millenniums old has been reduced to little more than a bureaucracy of death.

Despite the crippling losses, Ms. Oswald's "Iliad" has a strange, luminous quality. With the narrative stripped away, what's left is obituary -- and the domestic similes that draw in the workaday ancient world: Winnowers cleaning their chickpeas, a woman weighing out her weaving, fish trying to escape a ravaging dolphin. Ms. Oswald brings the poem closer to the begats of Genesis, meant to carry fact through the fog of time, than to the tales of Beowulf and Roland, which may have begun in history but ended in legend.

The "Iliad" appears to have taken shape about four centuries after the events of the Trojan War, if there ever was such a war -- the excavations at Hissarlik, the site of what is probably ancient Troy, have not revealed enough of the history from which the "Iliad" emerged. The poet probably knew less about his Bronze Age Greeks than Shakespeare did about the world of Macbeth. Our version of the "Iliad" was composed toward the end of what we assume were centuries of oral tradition -- the "Iliad," like the "Odyssey" and other oral poems, had a genetic ability to reproduce itself, changing with each recital, picking up new details even as old ones were discarded, but always remaining recognizable.

Almost nothing material in the poem can be traced with certainty to the Mycenaean Greeks -- the scholar G.S. Kirk thought the remnants of Mycenae amounted to no more than a wheeled work-basket, Nestor's cup and a few pieces of armor. Homer had only the sketchiest idea of Bronze Age weapons and battle tactics. He treated the war chariots as if they were hackney carriages, ferrying the warriors to battle and then dumping them like so many fare-paying bankers.

Ms. Oswald's condensed version of the poem is rudely partial, an "Iliad" after centuries of further loss and the accretion of a few modern artifacts like parachutes and motorbikes. She doesn't go as far as the late Christopher Logue, whose take-no-prisoners adaptation equipped the warriors with helicopters and Uzis. Ms. Oswald, whose work has often been striking but verbose, has found a quiet way of facing death, a way as moving as the bulletin boards of the missing after Sept. 11. The warriors are marked less by who they were than by how they died -- that is part of the ethos of war, where a heroic life can be marred by a cowardly death:

MNESIUS rolled in sand THRASIUS lost in silt

AINIOS turning somersaults in a black pool

Upside down among the licking fishes

And OPHELESTES his last breath silvering the surface

All that beautiful armour underwater

All those white bones sunk in mud

And instead of a burial a wagtail

Sipping the desecration unaware. …

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