Neil Reeder

 

 

 

By Harrow Road

Against dusk’s bands of scarlet-velvet light,
a Jehovah’s Witness clutches a crumpled
Book of apocalypse, and glowers
at a slammed front door.

Behind her, part in dare, part pulled by blues,
nonchalant to foretold doom, a teenage boy
walks on a wall’s slender height. To the left,
a harried old man takes unsure steps
down to the chill of the GP surgery;

and the kid stops, spotting a school girl
who sambas and sashays on toe-tips,
smiling as though it’s August Carnival,
when the air pulsates to a free jazz rhythm –
circling, adapting, vibrant, then gone.

 

 

 

Neil Reeder is a researcher on public services, who lives and works in London. His poems have been published in Iota, Equinox, the Rialto, and Soul Feathers.

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Neil Reeder

Quicksand

My room is quiet; I’ve woken surreptitiously.
The day feels early, so ready for sunshine –
and it must be Saturday, a time with a chance
to wander in woods beneath a patina of leaves;
along my spine comes a shiver of bliss in freedom,
and slowly recollecting what’s before and what’s ahead,
there comes the thought:  … “it’s Thursday. Oh …”

The clock says half past five. I cannot sleep.
I lull to random reminiscences:
“last time I met a man so instantly friendly,
the ticket he sold me turned out a fake …”
“my name; my name on the internet. In an unknown town
a duplicate me; with dozens of mourners at my funeral ….”

Cannot sleep. I twist and turn around in bed, turn around,
question myself; fight against inaudible sounds;
musings on might-have-beens waver and flicker within;
they flicker; my mind is open, shut, open; blank.

 

 

 

Neil Reeder is a researcher on public services, who lives and works in London. Sometimes a karaoke singer, sometimes an economist, his poems have been published in Equinox, the Rialto, and Soul Feathers

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William Bedford reviews Alice Oswald's 'Memorial'

Alice Oswald, Memorial (Faber and Faber, 2011) pp.84, £12.99p


Alice Oswald’s Memorial is “a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story”. That Oswald is a classicist – she read classics at New College, Oxford – and a distinguished poet herself is obvious throughout this exciting work. Critics since Arnold have tended to praise the Iliad for its nobility, but in attempting to recreate the atmosphere Oswald is concerned with what ancient critics called Homer’s enargeia, or “bright unbearable reality”.

To achieve this enargeia, she has abandoned the Iliad’s narrative drive in what she uneasily describes as a “reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem”. But the focus on brief biographies of the dead derives from the Greek tradition of lament poetry, and the similes owe their form to pastoral lyric. Opening with a list of over two-hundred names of the dead, Memorial “presents the whole poem as a kind of oral cemetery”, with the inevitability of death removing any possibility for narrative drama. But it is precisely this accumulating elegiac effect which creates the “unbearable reality” Oswald is trying to evoke.

An example will have to serve to give a sense of this extraordinary work:

Come back to your city SOCUS
Your father is a rich man a breeder of horses
And your house has deep decorated baths and long passages
But he and his brother weren’t listening
Like men on wire walking over the underworld
CHAROPS died first killed by Odysseus
Then Socus who was running by now
Felt the rude punch of a spear in his back
Push through his heart and out the other side poor Socus
Trying to get away from his own ending
Ran out his last moments in fear of the next ones
But this is it now this is the mud of Troy
This is black wings coming down every evening
Bird’s feathers on your face
Unmaking you mouthful by mouthful
Eating your eyes your open eyes
Which your mother should have closed

Like when the wind comes ruffling at last to sailors adrift
Trying to manage the broken springs of their muscles
And lever and lift those well-rubbed oars
Making tiny dents in the ocean

Like when the wind comes ruffling at last to sailors adrift
Trying to manage the broken springs of their muscles
And lever and lift those well-rubbed oars
Making tiny dents in the ocean


A family comes alive in the memorial lament, but the facts of death could apply to any fallen warrior, even the absence of conventional punctuation helping to generalise the experience. Oswald has chosen an almost prosaic language to register the horrors, a form of courtesy allowing the horror of the last five lines their full force. A force given added dignity and gravity by the repeated similes, a kind of Greek chorus commenting dispassionately on the details of the lament, again serving to generalise the experience.

Memorial
is a lament for the dead of all wars: the friends who die side by side “In a daze of loneliness/Their conversation unfinished”; the boy who was a famous hunter but dies “Wanting to be light again/Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted/And carried on a hip”; an only child whose loving parents “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”; a young warrior full of life “Running at a man thinking kill kill” only to die himself, and be left so that “In years to come someone will find his helmet/Shaped like a real head.”

Oswald succeeds magnificently in evoking a “bright unbearable reality” which has chilling relevance for us today. It is a reality where everybody is “Somebody’s darling son”; the orders for massacre clang with dreadful familiarity: “kill them all/Even the unborn ones in their mothers’ bellies”; men who were “not really” fighters at all but “more” farmers floundering clumsily on the battle-fields until death “Tin-opened them out of their armour”.

A live performance of Memorial would be an astonishing event. The force of the repeated similes only fully comes to life when read aloud and following their individual laments. And even here, Oswald shows her technical mastery. Hector’s is the last death to be lamented, but Hector “died like everyone else”, a passing remark which reveals the deeper significance of the work. And as if to allow the poem to enter our memories forever, the similes which follow Hector’s death are not repeated, but printed singly page-by-page, surrounded by the white silences of death. We can hear the gradual fading of the voices. But they are not gone.
This is truly the terror of war:

Like when a dolphin powered by hunger
Swims into the harbour
Thousands of light-storms of little fish
Flit away to the water-shaken wall-shadow
And hang there trembling.


….reviewed by William Bedford


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