by Madhu Kaza
There's a story I can't get out of my head. Except it's not a story, only the barest, stray thread. One winter morning a little over a year ago I turned on the radio to hear: “At least ten girls were killed yesterday as they were collecting firewood in eastern Afghanistan. The girls, said to range in age from nine to eleven died in an apparent bomb blast . . . . In a separate incident in Kabul . . . ” And just like that the news ticked on. On that particular day the news cycle was consumed with the tragedy of the mass murder of twenty children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Reports patched together detailed timelines of what had happened at the school. As the names were released, stories of each of the victims began to take shape. And commentators launched into debates about gun control and school safety. I searched online for more information about the Afghan girls but the news became less and less clear. There were nine dead, not ten, and two girls were injured. There might have been one boy in the group. The youngest was possibly six, the oldest perhaps thirteen. The explosion was due to a land mine planted by the Taliban. Or it might have been a mine from the Soviet era.
It's a story I can't forget though there's so little to remember. Ten girls. Ages nine to eleven. Collecting firewood. Eastern Afghanistan. Died. When I think how strange it is that this particular incident, so meager in its narrative, should haunt me as it does, I am reminded of Alice Oswald's extraordinary book length poem Memorial.
Memorial is Oswald's version or “excavation” of Homer's Iliad. Only in a very loose sense can it be considered a translation. Oswald writes in her introduction that she has brushed away the narrative of The Iliad, and what remains is a “bipolar” poem that includes only the biographies of the dead soldiers and the similes of the original. The book according to Oswald is an “oral cemetery.”
Most of the biographies in Memorial include brief accounts of how the soldiers died. There is an anatomical precision to many of the descriptions, notation of exactly where a spear pierced the victim's flesh. We are not spared the gory details of the deaths, either, however scant they may be. Diores, for instance, “Died in a puddle of his own guts.”
The poem does not differentiate between Greek and Trojan deaths. As Richard Martin writes in his introduction to Richard Lattimore's translation, the Iliad “is not about a clash of civilizations, much less so a contest between evil and good . . . . Its enduring value lies in the poem's recognition that even the worst enemies are deeply, fundamentally the same – desirous of glory and immortality, while subject to pain and death.” In Oswald's poem, as in Homer's, the men are not necessarily equal warriors. Some are described as “brave,” as “perfect fighters,” battling with “high hopes.” Others are less ideal soldiers: “HARPALION not quite ready for life/ Not quite solid always shifting from foot to foot/ With his eyes sliding everywhere in fear/ Followed his father to war”; “MELANIPPUS not really a fighter more a farmer.” But death levels all these men equally. The dead include Greeks and Trojans, sons of gods, sons of gentleman, sons of shepherds, unwanted and bastard sons.
Who they are most consistently in the poem are sons. By naming the soldiers in relation to their lineages, the biographies embed the men in a world outside of war, a world to which they once belonged. We see, too, the grief that follows their deaths, the grief of mothers and fathers. Here is the biography of Polydorus: “POLYDORUS is dead who loved running/ Now somebody has to tell his father/ That exhausted man leaning on the wall/ Looking for his favourite son.”
It's striking how little we learn of many of the lives that were lost. Often it's a slight but striking detail: Polydorus loved running, Elephenor wore his hair long at the back. Of Leukos we are told only that he was a friend of Odysseus and “Little is known of him except his death.” A little later there's this passage:
What happened to that man from Alybe far away in the east
What happened to ODIOS what happened to PHAESTUS
He came from Tarne where the soil is loose and crumbly
The lack of punctuation adds to the strangeness of this stanza. It seems to ask a question, “what happened?” But given the context of the poem it actually gives the answer. What happened was that they died. We are told where these men were from and the fact of their deaths. Many of the deaths, in fact, are signaled simply through a list of the names. For instance:
We learn nothing more about these men. But in Memorial narrative in the sparest (but vital) sense accrues around the names: There was a man named Iasus. He lived. He fought. He died. The name stands in for biography. The name alone must carry the lament.
I think of those girls who died on December 15, 2012 in Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan. I do not know their names. I do not know who grieved for them. I know nothing of them but their deaths. They were not combatants, but they are the war dead.
Memorial like Homer's Iliad is concerned with the mortality of men. Women– mothers and wives– carry the burden of grief. Although most of the similes that are interspersed between the biographies of soldiers refer to nature, a few refer to domestic life, and it is here that we get a view of women outside of their roles lamenting the dead. There is one brief glimpse of girls in the poem, and it makes me wonder about those Afghan girls. They were tasked with responsibilities such as helping to keep their families' homes warm in bitter winter. By age nine they were skilled in carrying logs and splitting wood with their axes. Who knows if, perhaps no longer the youngest children in their mothers' homes, they had sometimes felt something like this:
Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won't let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip