War Music – An Account of Homer’s Iliad ISBN 978-0-571-20218-8 Faber and Faber, edited by Christopher Reid
reviewed by Matt Bryden
For all his reputation for truculence and not fitting in (the title of his memoir is Prince Charming) Christopher Logue left his legacy in as good a state as any twentieth century poet – Audiologue, a seven-record set of performances of his work was published by Unknown Republic in 2001; a thin and strikingly-designed Selected Poems edited by Christopher Reid appeared in 1996; followed by a version of War Music as it stood in 2001, subtitled ‘Logue’s Homer.’
Since then, Logue has been adopted as a hero of the London spoken-word circuit for his credo, ‘There is no such thing as a definitive text.’ Last year’s staging of War Music by the National Theatre Wales was described by the Guardian as ‘the theatrical event of the year if not the decade.’
Illness prevented completion, but Logue was trying late into his life. This handsome treatment by Faber, with a cover suggestive of the music of the blades of an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, brings together the two extant volumes – All Day Permanent Red (2003) and Cold Calls (2005) – which fall in the middle of the book, as well as amendments based on marginalia in Logue’s own copy of War Music (examples of his immaculate precise penmanship adorn the endpapers). Also included is the stand-alone account of Achilles’ battle with the river Scamander which initiated Logue’s fascination with Homer in 1959.
In addition, poet and editor Christopher Reid (who did such a fantastic job editing Ted Hughes’s letters) has included a number of passages from Big Men Falling a Long Way, the barely begun installment with which Logue had intended to draw his account to a close. One of these passages documents King Priam’s meeting with Achilles to petition the return of his son’s body. As such, this is as near to essential as a book can come.
If Logue had put down his pen in 2001, his legacy would still be complete. Kings (an account of books 1 – 2) The Husbands (3 – 4) and War Music (16 – 19) contain all you need. Truth be told, that Logue did not complete his project is irrelevant since the Iliad itself has no beginning or end. We know the fate of Hector, Achilles and Troy before we even pick up the book. The story begins nine years after Paris has eloped with Helen, so breaking every custom of xenia – the concept of hospitality and courtesy between guest and host – possible, and closes before Achilles is dispatched by Paris.
Symmetries (there in the individual book titles Husbands and Kings) bring events full circle. ‘Why tears?’ asks his mother, the Goddess Thetis in book nineteen, as she did when she first found Achilles crying on the beach after his humiliation before King Agamemnon and the Greek army in book one. Soldiers doze ahead of fresh battle ‘like rows of spoons,’ bringing us back to Logue’s celebrated opening,
Picture the east Aegean sea by night,
And on a beach aslant its shimmering
Upwards of 50,000 men
Asleep like spoons beside their lethal Fleet.
Things are doomed to repeat. The Iliad is – will always be – relevant to us.
So what do Reid’s – and Logue’s – additions bring us? Generally, Logue’s amendments condense, standardize and reduce repetition. Colourful flourishes
are cut, yes, but the resultant text is a mean, efficient thing.
Fears about the later volumes fitting into the sequence prove ill-founded. A word on their reputation. All Day Permanent Red (books 5-6) and Cold Calls (7-9) did not benefit – as previous installments had – from live readings on tour, and the editing such performances inform. Both books are slim, and their focus (especially ADPR) on the battle scenes reduces the amount of oratory Logue is able to conjure. He puts us right down on the dusty plain, which allows less jump-cutting between the Gods and men, and less speeches. So the work is simpler.
And yet – Logue remained a genius assimilator. All Day Permanent Red is named after his wife’s lipstick shade (Estée Lauder) brilliantly applied here to blood-spattered battle. Cold Calls references the uninvited visit to Achilles’ tent by former friends brokering King Agamemnon’s deal (and their cool reception). As it happens, in sequence the two volumes work perfectly as a more vivid and narrow channel of focus before the perspective pulls back to reveal the greater picture, something Logue achieves sublimely in a passage incorporating August Kleinzahler (‘Bread trucks have begun to stream / across the vast plateau’):
He sees the islands of the West.
He who? Why, God, of course.
In his Editor’s Note, Reid describes Logue’s account of Achilles’ battle with Scamander as ‘one of the greatest… poetic works of the last century.’ However, it does not sit so comfortably here following the books whose composition it preceded. (Perhaps the alternate, more recent version Reid mentions might have been preferable). Nor does Logue’s undeniably moving account of Priam meeting Achilles. However, it is superb writing and a wonder to read it.
Perhaps Reid could also have included some variorum texts. Surely this is the way things will turn eventually, given the way Logue took ‘runs’ at passages (one is reminded of Ted Hughes’s collection of extracts from Shakespeare’s plays presented as stand-alone poems in their own right.) Of particular note among Logue’s excisions is an extended passage that stood in the 1981 version of War Music directly preceding Patroclus’s death after he has ignored both Achilles’ and Apollo’s warnings, beginning 'It was Patroclus’ turn to run.
Wide-armed, staring into the fight, and desperate
To hide (to blind that voice) to hide
Behind the moving blades.
And as he ran
Apollo dressed as Priam’s brother
Settled beside the inner gates
and strolled with Hector for a while, and took his arm
And, mentioning the ways of duty, love, good-conduct,
And the other perishable joys infecting men,
Dissolved his cowardice with promises.
Think of it; they stand like brothers, man and god,
Chatting together on the parapet that spans the inner gate.
The elder points. The other nods. And the plumes nod
Over them both. Patroclus couldn’t see
The Uncle’s finger leading Hector’s eye
Towards his heart. Nor does he hear Apollo whispering
‘Achilles’ heart will break…’ And neither man
Imagines that a god discusses mortals with a mortal.
Other excised passages tend towards the cruder parts of Logue’s imaginings, and possess a vivid puerile cast that at times seems entirely appropriate,
Prince Little A. loves to tease them with his arse:
‘I’ll screw your widow, Badedas.’
At others bathetic. *
Besides the consistent mastery of tone, ranging from pathetic to bombastic to devotional, and the staging which makes every event seem in the present tense and happening before us, it is the detail and range of reference which impress. In particular, Logue captures the bizarre Greek world of natural significance that recalls Shakespeare’s Pillicock Hill and hurricanoes reaching heaven.
You will have heard about the restless mice
Called lemmings; how, at no set time, and why,
No one is sure, they form a grey cascade that pours
Out of the mountains, down, across the flat.
Until they rush into the sea and drown.
Likewise the Trojans as they crossed the ditch.
In more homely mode, there is room for a nod to his own courtship, perhaps:
Immediately beyond the ridge is Primrose Hill
where Paris favoured Aphrodite.
The extended similes – often one sentence rushing to its close with the inevitability of a god’s command – tend to draw on the greater geographical and natural phenomena, and never fail to make fresh with their ingenuity:
Now dark, now bright, now watch –
As aircrews watch tsunamis send
Ripples across the Iwo Jima Deep,
Or as a schoolgirl makes her velveteen
Go dark, go bright –
The armies as they strip, and lay their bronze
And let their horses cool their hooves
Along the opposing slopes.
Occasionally, though, Logue abandons such heightened language, vouchsafing the opinion from the common sand,
– he is loved – I mean it, he is loved.
Later, Achilles says of King Agamemnon,
I hate that Greek. I hate him.
Other repetition comes, beautifully, not in the repeated heroic epithets, but as Apollo enacts Zeus’s burial instructions to the letter:
And God turned to Apollo, saying:
‘Mousegod, take my Sarpedon out of range
And clarify his wounds with mountain water;
Moisten his body with tinctures of white myrrh
And violet iodine; and when these chrisms dry
Fold him in miniver and lints
That never wear, that never fade,
And call My two blind footmen, Sleep and Death,
To carry him to Lycia by Taurus,
Where, playing stone chimes and tambourines,
The Lycians shall consecrate his death,
Before whose memory the stones shall fade.’
And Apollo took Sarpedon out of range
And clarified his wounds with mountain water;
Moistened his body with tinctures of white myrrh
And violet iodine; and when these chrisms dried
He folded him in miniver and lints
That never wear, that never fade,
And called God’s two blind footmen, Sleep and Death,
Who carried him
Before whose memory the stones shall fade
To Lycia by Taurus. *
Criticisms over the years, by people as diverse as the classicist Bernard Knox and poet André Naffis-Sahely will not be dispelled by this volume (though they will have to appreciate Logue’s achievement). Their beef, principally that Logue did not read ancient Greek, relying instead on a combination of word-for-word transcripts, prior translations and audio recordings to reveal the rhythms of the original language, and that his use of anachronism and playing fast and loose with characters (names change between different versions of each installment) misrepresent the source text, only increased as his project continued.
One example of Logue’s method is particularly instructive. In the Iliad, following the death of Patroclus, Hector leaves Euphorbus to guard his body. Homer tells us that Euphorbus carried a comb for his hair. Logue replaces Euphorbus with an inexperienced soldier, with a name of his own coinage, and replaces the comb with this detail:
Whenever Thackta fought he wore
Slung from an oiled tendon round his neck
A cleverly articulated fish;
Each jacinth scale a moving part; each eye, a pearl.
His luck; his Christopher; a gift.
The jewellery individualises the man, while its nature as a gift speaks of the affection of others. Pitted against the more experienced Cretan duke Merionez – unlike the more seasoned Euphorbus – Thackta doesn’t stand a chance. This mismatch is Logue’s point.
Knox complained that in successive volumes there was less Homer and more Logue, but the order of the books actually helps here; the battle sections of the early ’nineties, which saw Logue frequently compared to a young poet, exist like warped warriors on the battlefield hemmed in by the order of the outside books. Logue had only so much interest in the opinion of scholars anyway. At one point – I suspect knowingly – he includes the word ‘blue’ in his text (‘until the far, translucent blue / Augments their promising to die’) aware the ancient Greeks possessed no such word (hence all those references to the ‘wine-dark sea.’) *
A final comment on translation – it is hard to think of a prominent poet in the UK who is not also involved with either translation, radio or the stage (viz Simon Armitage’s recent comment on the refugee crisis with a translation of a passage from the Aeneid.) These forms predicate a desire to communicate with one’s audience. That imperative is noticeable in War Music every time Logue urges us to picture a scene, seeking a new way to engage us: ‘Consider…’ ‘Imagine…’‘Listen…’
See the closing five lines of Cold Calls, later excised: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/31395
New Statesman January 2016