War Music by Christopher Logue. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28.00, 352 pp.
For more than forty years the English poet Christopher Logue worked in fits and starts on his narrative poem War Music, subtitled An Account of Homer’s Iliad. The poem, which he was unable to complete before he died in 2011, was published in several sections titled War Music (1981), Kings (1991), The Husbands (1995), All Day Permanent Red (2003), and Cold Calls (2005), corresponding, respectively, to Books 16-19, 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, and 7-9 of The Iliad. These books have now been brought together in a single volume that tells the story of Logue’s fragmentary and highly original Trojan War. It benefits from the editorial care of Christopher Reid, who has appended excerpts from drafts for the work’s envisioned final section, Big Men Falling A Long Way, along with notes describing the source and contextual details for each draft. As the first volume since Logue’s death to take stock of his major poem, it is auspicious—in time we can expect Reid’s circumspection and restraint to be expanded on by critics working with Logue’s archives.
This is not to say that War Music is in pressing need of elucidation. Logue was vehemently responsive to his times, a rascal, a provocateur, irritating, incisive. His poetry looks out at the world without being topical. He was drawn to ballad forms and created “poster poems” that were sold and hung around London (these pieces were the subject of a recent retrospective at Rob Tufnell). He was a pacifist who protested against nuclear weapons, a satirist who wrote and edited pieces for Private Eye magazine, and, among other things, an actor, screenwriter, and playwright, who collaborated frequently with artists in various media. He was, in short, committed to a public presence for poetry, and this commitment was crucial to the very particular, undiminished energy that we find in Logue’s work. In fact, it might surprise people that he began War Music in 1959—so brilliant, so new, does it remain in a contemporary context. And this is where people tend to trip up a little—they know that the work before them is excellent, but they don’t know what it is exactly. Clearly the poem cannot be read outside of its relation to The Iliad, but we also cannot call it a “translation” in the familiar sense. To do so would suggest that it belongs in the same category as works produced with an aim of comprehensive fidelity to the original’s language and structure, texts such as those by Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Fagles, and Stanley Lombardo. Is War Music, then, a form of loose translation, a “carrying over” of spirit, with all the liberty that implies? Is Logue, as Gary Wills wrote, the third in an exclusive tradition of English poets, after George Chapman and Alexander Pope, “to bring Homer crashing into their own time”? While Wills is correct that Logue invites comparison more to Chapman and Pope than to other English translators, the comparison still doesn’t give an adequate sense of what he is up to.
There is probably no work more influential in Western literature than The Iliad, and Logue came to the poem late in the history of its influence. As he put it in an interview, Logue aimed to “write an English poem that is dependent on the Iliad.” He placed it in a tradition with writing by Chaucer, Tyndale, Jonson, Pope, Dr. Johnson, Edward Fitzgerald, and Pound, all of whom, he noted, wrote original works in English that depended on poems in other languages. We might add to this list other late Modernist examples of such “dependent” projects, like Nicholas Moore’s thirty-one versions of Baudelaire’s “Spleen (III)” in the different voices of 1960s England, or the free variations of Robert Lowell’s Imitations.
But Logue’s poem is perhaps better read as a forerunner of a tendency that in the last fifty years or so has produced some of our most visionary poetry: a tendency to compose spare, tensely-focused new works of literature out of longer canonical works. Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os, Jen Bervin’s Nets, and Alice Oswald’s Memorial all come to mind. Even as they differ in method, these poems have in common a revelatory fragmentariness, full of pregnant silences and rhythms structured around omission, suggestion, and the peculiar pressure that blanks exert on language. Where Moore and Lowell were mainly inspired by lyric poetry, these poets have worked with epics or sequences: Johnson erased most of Paradise Lost; Bervin printed several of Shakespeare’s sonnets with most of the text faded (but visible) while bolding isolated words across lines to form new early modern poems; and Oswald created a hypnotic elegy by translating—and improvising on—biographies of the dead and similes that are in the Greek of The Iliad. Logue, who didn’t know Greek, alternately expanded and contracted Homer’s material, leaving out and inventing sections as he saw fit, rearranging scene orders, redistributing speeches, and introducing striking anachronisms—all quite appropriate in a contemporary Homeric poem, given the individual variations on inherited cultural material that we associate with performers in an oral tradition.
We can get an idea of Logue’s method by looking at how he handles a scene in which Hephaestus attempts to comfort his mother, Hera. Fagles in his 1990 translation gives us:
. . . Hephaestus the Master Craftsman
rose up first to harangue them all, trying now
to bring his loving mother a little comfort,
the white-armed goddess Hera: “Oh disaster…
that’s what it is, and it will be unbearable
if the two of you must come to blows this way,
flinging the gods in chaos just for mortal men.
I urge you, mother—you know that I am right—
work back into his good graces, so the Father,
our beloved Father will never wheel on us again,
send our banquets crashing! The Olympian lord of lightning—
what if he would like to blast us from our seats?
He is far too strong. Go back to him, mother,
Stroke the Father with soft, winning words—
At once the Olympian will turn kind to us again.
Pleading, springing up with a two-handled cup,
he reached it toward his loving mother’s hands
with his own winning words: “Patience, mother!
Grieved as you are, bear up, or dear as you are,
I have to see you beaten right before my eyes.
I would be shattered—what could I do to save you?
It’s hard to fight the Olympian strength for strength.
You remember the last time I rushed to your defense?
He seized my foot, he hurled me off the tremendous threshold
and all day long I dropped, I was dead weight and then,
when the sun went down, down I plunged on Lemnos,
little breath left in me. But the mortals there
soon nursed a fallen immortal back to life.”
At that the white-armed goddess Hera smiled
and smiling, took the cup from her child’s hands.
Then dipping sweet nectar up from the mixing bowl
he poured it round to all the immortals, left to right.
And uncontrollable laughter broke from the happy gods
as they watched the god of fire breathing hard
and bustling through the halls . . .
In Logue this becomes:
And when her son, the scientist Hephaestus, Lord of Fire –
About to dazzle Summertime
(His favourite Season) with a twisty loop
Of paradoxical diffraction foil –
Saw how upset she was, he gimped across to her and said:
But she just turned away.
Then turned the other way, and would have said:
I have enough to bear without the sight of you,’
Except her mouth was full of blood.
‘Mother,’ smiling his little smile, Hephaestus said:
‘You are quite right to be ashamed of me,
For you are large, and beautiful, while I
Am small and handicapped.’
And as she could not speak unless she gulped,
Just as she gulped, Hephaestus put
A jug that he had struck from frosted iron,
Then chased, in gold, with peonies and trout,
Into her hand, and said:
‘Forget God’s words.
Spring kisses from your eyes.
Immortals should not quarrel over men.’
Then, turning on his silver crutch
Towards his cousin gods, Hephaestus
Made his nose red, put on lord Nestor’s voice,
‘How can a mortal make God smile?…
‘Tell him his plans!’
And as their laughter filled the sky,
Hephaestus lumped away remembering how,
Angered at some unwanted fact of his,
God tossed him out of Heaven into the void,
And how – in words so fair they shall for ever be
Quoted in Paradise: ‘from morn
To noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve,
A summer’s day; and with the setting sun
Dropped from the zenith like a falling star,
On Lemnos’ in an arc that left
Him pincer-handed with crab-angled legs.
And Hera judged
The little jug’s perfection with a smile.
That is just a warm-up from the first section of Logue’s poem. When we get to the battle scenes, memorable passages occur one after another and last for pages at a time. I’m reminded of what Randall Jarrell said about Walt Whitman: to show Logue for the poet he is in War Music, you don’t need to praise or explain or argue, you need simply to quote.
The great achievement is Logue’s language—the free-spirited performance of its diction, syntax, allusions, quotations, and pacing. The qualities that Matthew Arnold said were necessary to a good translation of Homer are all variously on display: rapidness, plainness and directness of style, plainness of thought, and nobility. Logue uses a loose iambic pentameter base, arranging over it an intricate interplay of sentence fragments, parenthetical syntax, short and long lines stretched over ample white space, and film-quick shifts of perspective across space and time—all to generate rapidness while achieving an admirable, if inconsistent, directness. Sometimes he loses control of his similes, muddling the terms of comparison. Sometimes the lines are so tight-lipped and fast that you have to re-read them a few times to connect actions with characters. None of this matters very much because Logue produces a remarkable compensation, a quality that other English poems associated with Homer generally lack: exuberance. He creates an atmosphere in which humanity’s anarchic love of violence flourishes without portentousness or frivolity: “His blood ran back into the pout the shank had left, / And to complete her miracle / Lord Diomed rose up between them, stood in the air, / Then hovered down onto his toes / Brimming with homicidal joy, / Imparting it to Greece.” And: “Took his head off his spine with a backhand slice – / Beautiful stuff . . . straight from the blade.” And: “. . . up we got / And sent our arrows into them, / That made them pirouette, / Topple back down the rise, leaving their dead / For some of us to strip, and some, the most, / To pause, to point, to plant, a third, a fourth / Volley into their naked backs. Pure joy!”
This approach has its disappointments. In one sequence we go from the thrilling, almost sublime, “Queen Hera whispered: ‘Greek, cut that bitch.’ / And, Diomed, you did; nicking Love’s wrist,” to a dud of an epithet for Aphrodite as she examines the wound: “Our Lady of the Thong.” But even as the poem veers here and there into comic flippancy, the shortcomings are overshadowed by the general achievement. By emphasizing at the level of language the tremendous distance between Homer’s time—as well as that of the Trojan War—and ours, Logue puts multiple eras in active, living relation. For instance, appropriating turns of phrase from our world’s martial and commercial language, War Music replaces Homer’s catalogue of fighters from all over Achaea with a sprawling inventory of materials, as if it were a mail-order advertisement: “20,000 spears at ninety, some / scaffolding poles, full-weight, to thrust . . . some light, / surveyor rods, to throw; / 10,000 helmets – mouth hole, eye-hole . . . masks, nose-bars, some gold, some polished steel . . . 400 tons of frozen chicken,” and so on, even decorated with typographic illustration (“half-rivets set square : :”). (Notably, this is the only point in the poem where Logue abandons verse, discarding his pentameter basis and upper-case line-beginnings for a series of items that run on in one blend of soporific sound.) Elsewhere we hear of “your smash-hit / High-reliability fast-forward pain,” and how “as she laid the moonlit armour on the sand / It chimed . . . / And the sound that came from it / Followed the light that came from it / Like sighing / Saying: / Made in Heaven.” The section title “All Day Permanent Red” comes from a Revlon lipstick ad. True to his inspiration in Homer, Logue has developed a form that can hold nearly anything, demonstrating that even in these sordid, spiritually anguished, capital-enthralled times we too can have our virtuous music, like Keats’s autumn, when least expected.
This brings us to the understated nobility of War Music. Against reminders of heaven’s indifference (“But Artemis was bored with him / And let him rise, still praying hard, / Into the downflight of the javelin”) and of historical inevitability (“ . . . Ilium swept / Onto the strip / Into the Greeks / Over the venue where / Two hours ago all present prayed for peace”), we find sympathetic treatments of character. Homer is recognized for his sympathy, and yet, look at the difference between ancient Helen on the walls of Troy, referring to herself as “whore that I am,” and Logue’s late twentieth century portrayal of Helen, who on those same walls confides, “Sometimes I think I am in bed at home, / And as they did, my brothers come, and pull my covers off, / And I wake up to find that Troy is nothing but a dream’—but, Logue’s narrator adds, bringing the pathos of her situation into relief, “Troy was not a dream, and they [i.e., her brothers] lay dead, / Killed by their neighbours in a hillside war, / Beneath the snowy sheep that graze on Sparta.”
The soldiers live in what Keats calls “moments big as years,” ready to give up long life and peace for lasting significance founded on acts of will, bravery, and power in chaos. Because Logue was unable to complete his poem, we don’t see Achilles return to battle after Patroclus’s death. Nor do we see Priam’s secret nighttime visit to the Greek camp to beg Achilles for Hector’s body (a draft of this scene is included in the Appendix, but Logue was a tireless reviser and almost certainly would have altered it). As result, the poem’s climax, and essential moment, might be this exchange between Hector and the dying Patroclus:
Shaking the voice out of his body, says:
Remember it took three of you to kill me.
A god, a boy, and, last and least, a prince.
I can hear Death pronounce my name, and yet
Somehow it sounds like Hector.
And as I close my eyes I see Achilles’ face
With Death’s voice coming out of it.’
Saying these things Patroclus died.
And as his soul went through the sand
Hector withdrew his spear and said:
There is something about Hector’s “Perhaps,” coming after the bulk of Logue’s poem, that is quietly heroic. He seems more of a giant in the long shadow of his composure here than in his dominance during the battles. This is a simple, unaffected courage: Hector stands poised on the edge of the fulfillment of his being, and then, with a single word often used to convey a lack of resolution but here spoken resolutely, commits himself to it. Later, Achilles will echo this attitude when, in two of the poem’s final three lines, he says, “I know I will not make old bones,” and then beats “his scourge against their [his horses’] racing flanks,” riding his chariot toward the deaths—his and Hector’s—that we will not see.
These moments big as years keep the poem from feeling incomplete, even as we wonder how Logue would have re-created scenes such as the making of Achilles’s armor. The conspicuous absences contribute to a sort of aura underscoring War Music: what we do have feels whole, against expectation, unified as much by what has been incorporated as by our awareness of what has been left out, whether by intention or simply because Logue ran out of time. Here, as in Homer, Achilles’s rage serves as premise, but in contrast to The Iliad the drama of this rage running its course is not at the core of War Music. Logue gives us a different tragic vision, one in which all soldiers, no matter their reasons for fighting or their conduct in battle, are eventually anonymous in death. The final image is of a lone spear stuck in the sand. It is an apt illustration of a truth that stands beyond all incitements to war:
Moments like these absolve the needs dividing men.
Whatever caught and brought and kept them here
Is lost: and for a while they join a terrible equality,
Are virtuous, self-sacrificing, free:
And so insidious is this liberty
That those surviving it will bear
An even greater servitude to its root:
Believing they were whole, while they were brave;
That they were rich, because their loot was great;
That war was meaningful, because they lost their friends.
Previous writing by Adam Kosan has appeared in Prelude online.
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