‘Hold those bold boys back / Riding over the battlefield too fast’ are lines from Alice Oswald’s book-length poem Memorial, a lyrical homage to the two hundred dead soldiers in Homer’s Iliad. Dressed in a long green tunic, Oswald majestically recited the entire collection from memory, an incredible feat that lasted an hour and a quarter. Memorial is a reworking of the Greek classic which focuses not on Achilles’ contributions but on the fallen army whose names are listed epitaph-style at the beginning of the collection. Robyn Marsack introduced this gardener-poet, encouraging everyone to purchase Memorial, though cheekily added ‘but you can also borrow it from the Scottish Poetry Library’ where Marsack herself is director.
And then, the audience was left with Oswald’s performance. Never once did she look down at her text, nor did she noticeably stumble. Her voice was an undulating wave which continually evoked a lilting rhythm, like three keys on a piano. It takes much imagination to describe so many deaths and Oswald achieves this task with grisly images of blood, flies, spears and axed necks. These images were helped along by an incidental soundtrack of the tattoo’s low-flying jet and several passing ambulances. Much is achieved in Memorial, a text so closely intertwined with the Iliad, but is some of its poignancy lost in a one-shot performance?