Onward Achaean Soldiers
Published (presumably by chance?) to coincide with the onset of the recent war against Iraq, the latest installment of Christopher Logue’s ongoing version of Homer’s Iliad offers a timely and wholly appropriate meditation on the historical recurrence of war as a fundamental human activity. People, men in particular, are good at war in the way Mark Twain observed that smokers are good at smoking, and Logue’s accounts of Homeric battle mingle detailed description of the scenery of warfare with more intimate insights into what makes men fight, and the pleasures and horrors they derive from so doing.
Logue’s method is to work within the original text, excavating it in order to bring to light shards of meaning from which, like a literary archaeologist, he reconstructs entire histories of usage and re-usage. It’s the history of translated uses of the Iliad, rather than any pretence at showing the Iliad itself, that his versions aspire to. At the same time, he’s a canny enough ‘translator’ to know that the perspective of his own situation will always shadow what he writes, so he integrates it overtly into the version he produces. We get Homer rewritten in the voice of contemporary street-wise English, lightly sprinkled with anachronistic references that foreground the take on the text, rather than simply the text itself.
This can be disconcerting, but Logue has established his methodology clearly in the preceding sections of War Music so that anyone familiar with the project will slip easily into this new part. All Day Permanent Red explicitly addresses the first battle scenes of the Iliad, opening with a powerful establishment sequence, before launching into more detailed accounting of the first day’s fighting of a ten-year war. From the outset we’re in post-Vietnam militaristic rhythms of language, a mix of Stanley Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket) and Paul Hardcastle:
Slope. Strip. Slope.
Right. Centre. Left.
Road. Track. Cross.
Ridge. Plain. Sea.
This is poetry pared down to the barest minimum, almost brutal in its reliance of words shorn of sense or elaboration, redolent only of military functionalism, and yet conveying tension and expectation at a minimum sensory level. Characters are introduced in similar style, as figures familiar and yet changed by their situation, on the edge of precisely the mythic immortality that makes them familiar:
Nestor, his evening star.
His silent fortress, Ajax. Good—even on soft sand.
Odysseus (you know him), small but big.
Fourth—grizzled and hook-tap nosed—the king of Crete,
Logue’s style throughout this book is comfortable and informal, sometimes verging on the terse in its abbreviation, never allowing syntactical complexity to interfere with the smooth transmission of the necessary information. The poetry is loosely structured, oscillating around a central pillar of five-stress iambic lines, with a less rigidly enforced series of variations:
Despite the few who ran
Out from the rest to get at him and died
Or ducked and dodged his restless spear
And came away covered with blood and died,
Like shoppers trapped by a calamity
The rest pressed back onto the rest.
Here the rhythm varies between three, four and five-stress lines, creating a free-flowing and yet structured account. The inserted image of “shoppers trapped by a calamity” lends a moment of bathos, signaling the latent absurdity of the scene already implied in the subtle repetitions of “died” and “rest”. Logue’s writing is carefully structured here to convey both an impression of the scene described and an embedded attitude towards it, and owes as much to experiments in free-form jazz (making All Day Permanent Red an ‘interpretation’, in the musical sense of the term) as it does to literary avant-gardism.
The “shoppers” in the above quote also serve to indicate the fundamentally human realism that underlies both the Iliad and Logue’s rendering of it, and this is ultimately the effect of the historical flattening achieved through contemporary reference. War is presented as an eternal preoccupation, something relentless (but not, necessarily, inevitable: Logue has emphasized in earlier sequences the political and diplomatic dimensions of the Trojan war) and recurring. His citations from other writings and other historical moments serve to reinforce rather than reduce the impact of his own images:
And, candidly, who gives a toss?
Your heart beats strong. Your spirit grips.
King Richard calling for another horse (his fifth).
King Marshall Ney shattering his sabre on a cannon ball.
King Ivan Kursk, 22.30 hrs,
July 4th to 14th ‘43, 7000 tanks engaged,
’. . . he clambered up and pushed a stable-bolt
Into that Tiger-tank’s red-hot machine-gun’s mouth
And bent the bastard up. Wowee!’
Where would we be if he had lost?
Achilles? Let him sulk.
This is so reminiscent of Logue’s early poetic role model Ezra Pound as to be almost anachronistic in terms of style rather than content, but it also contains strong echoes of the work of the Welsh modernist poet David Jones, whose (massively underrated) war poetry employs a comparable mixing of the contemporary and the mythical, the demotic and the poetic.
In his remarkable memoir Prince Charming, published by Faber in 1999, Logue discusses in detail his working methods in interpreting Homer, and the sequence of events that introduced him to the project in the first place. “The thing under my nose that I missed then, and for a long time afterwards”, he writes, “was that I am happiest when I have a guide. A text, a painting or a photograph, to work from. I like recomposing. An existing text makes starting easier.” His ‘recomposition’ of Homer offers as good a guide as one will find to one of the foundational narratives of Western civilization.