Greek debt

November 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

So far, I’ve read only one of the books shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize – Alice Oswald’s Memorial (Faber).  In my view, it’s a cracker.  Here’s why.  For anyone who heard Yannis Told Us performed by Tria Kalistos (Kelvin Corcoran and multi-instrumentalists Maria Pavlidou and Howard Wright) at the Sheffield Poetry Festival in April, the legacy of classical Greek poetry is its ability to convey muck and myth on the same stage.  Kelvin described how each Greek village has its own, lived Iliad stories, putting Paris, Hector and Helen within a parochial context.  Similarly, Oswald (though she focuses on the unsung dead of the Trojan War) makes her subjects vivid through what she calls paraphrase: ‘a translation of the Iliad‘s atmosphere, not its story.’  So we have DIORES dying ‘in a puddle of his own guts’; AXYLUS (‘Everyone knew that plump man / Sitting on the step with his door wide open’) dying ‘side by side with CALESIUS / In a daze of loneliness / Their conversation unfinished’; and, stunningly, ALCATHOUS:

Somebody’s husband somebody’s daughter’s husband
Stood there stunned by fear
Like a pillar like a stunted tree
He couldn’t bend his stones
He couldn’t walk his roots
His armour was useless it simply
Cried out and broke open oh
There stood ALCATHOUS and a spear
Knowing nothing of his wedding
Not knowing his feelings or his wife’s face
Or her doting parents or her incredible needlework
That spear went straight through his heart
And began to tick tick tick but not for love.

That ‘oh’ – a loss of faculty, of language reduced to utterance – is utterly (see?) real and present for us, now.  It is the point (literally) where dirty reality and eternal truth meet.  It’s what Homer, and Yannis, and Alice Oswald hang the world on.  A bit of all of us.

 

 

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