Christopher Logue (b1926) has been working on his acclaimed mosaic of versions from Homer's Iliad since 1959, when he began with a commission from BBC radio.
This fifth and penultimate extract, Cold Calls, deals with the crisis faced by the Greek army when its champion Achilles angrily withdraws from combat after Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief, steals the slave girl Briseis from him. It closes with Achilles's ultimatum to the desperate Greek envoys. Unless he receives satisfaction he will sail home and leave them to the currently rampant Trojans.
Logue is not a classicist and began without knowing Greek. Of the work as a whole, he has commented that he hoped he was writing "a poem in English" rather than attempting a faithful reproduction of the original, and in support has cited Samuel Johnson's belief that "We must try its effect as an English poem...that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation." There are those who might disagree with the broad permission thus granted. Logue cuts, reorganises and is at times cheerfully anachronistic: the goddess Aphrodite, for example, mother of the Trojan prince Aeneas, is called here "Our Lady of the thong", while the gods in general behave like a ghastly family of celebrities -and are the least interesting feature of the book. But if we side with Johnson it is clear that what Logue writes has a compelling life of its own, particularly in its unmediated savagery. It is difficult to convey the horror of violence afresh, but Logue appears to understand the unapologetic, craftsmanly attitude of a warrior society.
Here Aeneas beheads an opponent: "Took his head off his spine with a backhand slice -/ Beautiful stuff...straight from the blade.../Still, as it was a special head,/ Mowgag, Aeneas' minder -/right as a box of rocks, but musical-/Spiked it, then hoisted it...twizzling the pole/ Beneath the blue, the miles of empty air".
That gleeful celebration of atro-city speaks to our own age, from Stalingrad to Chechnya and Iraq. Both Quentin Tarantino and bad British gangster films attempt an equivalent swagger, only to end up with a pose. In this Iliad, however, there is no escape into alleged irony. Nobody leaves before the end, and there is nowhere else to be but on the plain before Troy.
It must be tempting to produce a richly decorative version of The Iliad, full of local flourishes and curlicues. In Cold Calls, Logue's economy is severe: nothing is present solely on its own account; everything serves the complete, chilling effect. His work has been called cinematic, and in an austere, functional sense this is true, as in the chariot-borne spear-duel between Hector and Diomedes: "Those skewers trading brilliance as they passed -/ And missed - both vehicles slither-straightening".
The poem comes back over and over again to the blood-soaked killing ground between Troy and the sea, dramatising the double time-scale: on the one hand the daily grind and uproar of fresh battle, on the other the slipping-away of 10 years in virtual stalemate. War becomes a machine for reproducing itself, while the Greek commanders squabble on their hill of bones. In Achilles's response to the pleas for him to return to battle, Logue imports a Tennysonian note in such a way as to upend it, to complex effect: "My mother says I have a choice:/Live as a happy backwoods king for aye;/ Or give the world an everlasting murmur of my name,/And die./Be up tomorrow sharp/To see me sacrifice to Lord Poseidon and set sail."
Achilles must serve as his own mourner. Colonel Tim Collins would understand this blend of the sentimental and the authentic, as well as knowing its effect on the like-minded.
There is nothing in Cold Calls that quite rivals Logue's amazing rendering of Achilles's fight with the river Scamander in Book XXI, whose lavishness makes plain that his methods elsewhere are the result of choice rather than limitation.
But this is hardly Logue's fault. The question now is how long we must wait for the appearance of the whole of his version in a single edition.
Sunday Times, 23.10.05.
Charles Bainbridge enjoys the latest part of Christopher Logue's reworking of Homer: Cold Calls: War Music Continued by Christopher Logue 64pp, Faber, £8.99
Cold Calls is the fifth instalment in Christopher Logue's remarkable adaptation of The Iliad . Logue has been working on different episodes of Homer's epic on and off since the late 50s, at first mainly for radio performance. The stunning War Music appeared in book form in 1981, followed in the early 90s by Kings and then Husbands (these three were gathered together under the general title War Music in 1997).
Cold Calls , together with its immediate predecessor, All Day Permanent Red (2003), narrates the opening battle sequences of Homer's poem. Both books are exhilarating reads, but what is immediately striking is just how differently they set about their often grisly and gory material.
All Day Permanent Red immersed itself in the viciousness of the conflict with a certain Jacobean glee. There are moments when Logue delights in implicating the reader in an onslaught of almost comic-book violence ("that unpremeditated joy as you / - the Uzi shuddering warm against your hip . . . / squeeze nickel through that rush of Greekoid scum. / Oh wonderful, most wonderful"). The book is carried breathlessly along on the adrenaline of its verbs, displaying throughout a visceral glamour with hints of laddish bravado thrown in - "his Porsche-fine chariot with Meep on reins / arriving with the comet's tail". There's no time to mourn or regret the mounting death toll. As the poem itself brutally challenges: "and, candidly, who gives a toss?"
From the start Cold Calls strikes a very different note, attempting in some measure to answer the above question. Here Logue seems far less concerned with immersion in blood than with enacting the different ways contemporary society, and the media in particular, records and presents images of violence. The pace is slower, the mood elegiac, bitter, reflective.
Take the account of the death of Nyro of Simi. Logue surrounds the event with a range of familiar voices. First of all "experts in hand-to-hand action" are brought in to make predictions. The death itself is then described through the mouth of a macabre tennis commentator ("took his head off his spine with a backhand slice - / beautiful stuff"). We move to the grieving mother - "she shaved her head; she tore her frock . . . / ripping her fingernails through her cheeks". The images roll past like a horrific news bulletin, culminating in the report of a photojournalist (or even perhaps "a member of the public" armed with mobile phone camera):
I saw her running round.
I took the photograph.
It summed the situation up.
He was her son.
They put it in colour. Right?
My picture went around the
Logue's focus here is on a very modern kind of voyeurism, one that has an instant and global impact.
Several other poets have, in their recent work, also looked to Homer as a way forward, each responding in markedly different ways. Michael Longley, for example, has woven short extracts from both The Iliad and The Odyssey into wonderfully delicate lyrics that explore Northern Ireland's recent history; Derek Walcott's Omeros is a subtle and impressive reworking of The Iliad into the textures and history of the Caribbean island of St Lucia.
Logue's way in was via Ezra Pound, especially the early Cantos . These themselves include extracts from both The Iliad and The Odyssey . But what Logue took to heart so effectively were Pound's technical innovations, his cinematic evocation of place and landscape, his sensitivity to typography, his use of imagery and rhythm. The essence of Logue's achievement has been to combine these features with an exhilarating narrative drive and a remarkable sensitivity to the energies of contemporary language.
This quality is nowhere more on show than in Cold Calls ' portrayal of the gods as a dysfunctional celebrity family. The opening appearance hints at what is to follow: "Heaven. / Bad music. / Hera is examining her gums." Throughout, the gods are the epitome of garish and appalling taste. The central figure is Aphrodite, "Our Lady of the Thong". She arrives accompanied by a gloating fashion-caption: "Aphrodite (dressed / in grey silk lounge pyjamas piped with gold / and snakeskin flip-flops)". A little further on there is a dialogue between the goddess and the river god Scamander, whom she seduces into drowning some Greek soldiers. As Aphrodite steps slowly into the water the river god excitedly declares: "And now your bum! / Your Holy Bum! Your Sacred Bum! / The Bum of Paradise!"
This anticipates Aphrodite's own gloriously vulgar attack on Hera, Jove's wife, in the middle of a family squabble high up in the heavenly palace: "Your blubber-bummed wife with her gobstopper nipples / cannot stand Troy because Troy's Paris put her last / when we stripped off for him." The gods are arguing over their involvement in the fighting below. In the midst of this domestic melee, Jove himself is presented as a world-weary patriarch rather belatedly advising: "Avoid humanity / Remember - I am God. / I see the bigger picture."
Part of the success of Logue's ongoing project has been the vigour and dynamism with which he recasts the story. Here he draws material freely from across the range of Books V to IX, and then interweaves it with completely new episodes. In his introduction to War Music , Logue explains: "Rather than a translation in the accepted sense of the word, I was writing what I hoped would turn out to be a poem in English." This gives him the freedom to depart from or focus on the details of the Greek original as and when he feels that the poetry is working.
Cold Calls is an excellent example of this flexibility and its capacity to re-enact and reinvigorate Homer's poem. The final passage focuses closely on Book IX. The slippery shifts in tone, the deflating and deflecting surfaces suddenly disappear in the implacable and terrifying presence of Achilles ("You cannot take your eyes away from him. / His own so bright they slow you down. / His voice so low, and yet so clear. / You know that he is dangerous"). Achilles delivers a speech that is overwhelming in its icy clarity and mercilessness:
Do I hate him? Yes, I hate him.
And should he be afraid of me? He
I want to harm him. I want him to
This is remarkable stuff. We have swerved away from bitter comedy and back into the central drama of the poem - the power and the fury of Achilles. Cue next instalment.