‘I Can Hear Death Pronounce My Name’

Review: Christopher Logue, ‘War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad’

'The Greeks and the Trojans Fighting over the Body of Patroclus' by Antoine Wiertz
June 18, 2016

It is nightfall in ancient Achaea, and your goat-herding family and neighbors gather near a fire to hear a traveling minstrel sing of the fall of heroes. Or perhaps you are a citizen in the Athenian city-state, listening indoors to the foibles of the gods, so like those of your own aristocracy. Or perhaps you dwell on Leuce Island in the Black Sea, and you long for a paean to menein, a word that means rage and that is reserved for the gods alone, save one mortal, the hero patron of the cult you worship, Achilles.

But always you expect the minstrel to sing of that distant city: Troy.

Then comes a minstrel who tells the old stories like you’ve never heard them told before, in a language more like your own, but radically so, whether evoking the rapture of combat:

And here it comes:
That unpremeditated joy as you
-- The Uzi shuddering warm against your hip
Happy in danger in a dangerous place
Yourself another self you found at Troy—
Squeeze nickel through that rush of Greekoid scum!

the sensual thrill of being possessed by a god:

At Hera’s nod Athena stood beside Odysseus
And ran her finger down his spine.
Aoi!—see him move…

or the sardonic despair in Odysseus’ message to Achilles, appealing for his aid and sending news of the death of Patroclus:

Run to the Fleet. Give Wondersulk our news.
His love is dead. His armour gone.
Prince Hector has the corpse. And as an afterthought,
That we are lost.

You look at the minstrel and see a messy-haired man whose life has led him many places, including Palestine, where he served in the Black Watch, and Israel, where he was court-martialed and served 16 months in prison for fraud. A man whose jobs have included acting in films by Terry Gilliam and authoring a pornographic novel. A man who fills his language with the vocabulary of screenplays, as when, following Achilles’ declaration that he will fight no more, we get: "Silence. // Reverse the shot. // Go close." A man who does not even know Greek, but whose ear for its music is more perfectly tuned than any translator’s, as in the description of Zeus’ rites for his slain son, Sarpedon:

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 are dry
Fold him in miniver that never wears
And lints 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 will consecrate his death,
Before whose memory the stones shall fade.

A modern reader would be no less astounded by Christopher Logue’s War Music: An Account of the Iliad than would those ancient Greek audiences. It is one of the most important works of literature of our time, a loose translation of the Iliad that Logue began in 1959 and published piecemeal in a number of different editions (Kings, The Husbands, All Day Permanent Red, Cold Calls, War Music, and the planned but incomplete Big Men Falling a Long Way, which the editor Christopher Reid has carefully reconstructed from the manuscripts and notes Logue left at his death in 2011).

Logue fractures the traditional, stately narration of translators like Richard Lattimore and Robert Fagles, favoring an accretion of intense lyric moments, made accessible yet uncanny with allusions to English poetry and inventive anachronisms (a device Homer himself uses, most often when referring to styles of armaments that pre-Homeric warriors could not have possessed), as in this simile for the clash of armies:

Think of the moment when far from the land
Molested by a mile-a-minute wind
The ocean starts to roll, then rear, then roar
Over itself in rank on rank of waves
Their sides so steep their smoky crests so high
300,000 plunging tons of aircraft carrier
Dare not sport its beam.

Lacking lengthy narrative explication, Logue packs his lines with information ("Be advised, / If you cannot give death the two-finger-flip / Do not fight by or against Queen Hera’s human / The son to Tydéus murderous Diomed aka The Child") and intensifies the emotions by ventriloquizing, sometimes speaking as an anonymous Trojan or Greek, sometimes as a whole army, and sometimes inserting himself into the poem (much as the blind bard Demodocus, who sings the Phaeacians in the Odyssey, was long thought a stand-in for Homer), as when he describes the voices of a Trojan council:

Their voices rising through the still, sweet air

As once, as tourists, my friends and I
Smoked as we watched
The people of the town of Skopje
Stroll back and forth across their fountained square,
Safe in their murmur on our balcony
At dusk, not long before an earthquake tipped
Themselves and their society aside.

And Logue modernizes the narration of the Iliad with cinematic directions, often jump-cutting between close-ups of the men and panoramic views of the Trojan plain, the city, and the mountains beyond:

The ridge.
King Agamemnon views Troy’s skyline.

Windmills. Palms.

‘It will be ours by dark.’

His depictions of divine power are rendered with a hip irony that makes the gods more mortal than the mortals in their whims and anger. Consider the scene when Menelaus, fighting in winner-takes-all single combat against Paris, breaks his sword, and in the pause Aphrodite intervenes to save Paris:

A hundred of us pitch our sword to him…
Yet even as they flew, their blades
Changed into wings, their pommels into heads,
Their hilts to feathered chests, and what were swords
Were turned to doves, a swirl of doves,
And waltzing out of it, in oyster silk,
Running her tongue around her strawberry lips
While repositioning a spaghetti shoulder-strap,
The Queen of Love, Our Lady Aphrodite.

(Casting possibilities: Kate Upton, Anita Ekberg.) Logue never lets us forget that the gods are ever-present in our lives: "Dawn stepped barefooted from her lover’s bed / And shared her beauty with the gods, / Who are as then; and with ourselves, as now."

In contrast with the slow-motion scenes of divine activity, the battle scenes might well have been filmed by Sam Peckinpah: lurid, quick-paced, and intense, they draw out the profound violence of Homer’s poem and reset it in a contemporary idiom. We see it in Diomedes’ divinely inspired war rage:

Her power [Hera] surging through him, he
Cast as leapt at them; barbecued three;
Crashed through their coffin-tops’
Gaffed his plume dead; cut fillets out of those;
His masks behind him through the gap
Him making for the rise topped by Prince Hector’s vulture plume.

and we hear it in the noise of battle: "And dear my God, the noise! / As if the hides from which 10,000 shields were made / Came back to life and bellowed all at once." Logue hyperbolizes the grotesquerie of battle with images of horrifying brutality, like the mounting of Nyro’s bell-braided head atop a spear in a parody of the jester’s marotte, and with one-liners worthy of a 1980s Schwarzenegger film, as when the trumpeter Teléspiax takes an arrow to the head that was meant for Hector and says, "My Prince, your trumpeter has lost his breath," or when Aphrodite complains to Zeus about the wound she received from Diomedes: "Human strikes God! Communism! The end of everything!"

If such moments risk drifting into farce, Logue rights them with piercing insights about the combat experience:

[T]he battle has as battles do
Found its own voice, that, presently far off
Blends with the sound of clear bright water as it falls
Over their covert’s mossy heights.

and with meditations on war Stephen Crane might have written, bleak realist poems:

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.

But you and your fellow Greek audience have come to hear the minstrel sing not of war in general, but of the war at Troy, and of the fall of its heroes: Agamemnon, Priam, Hector, Patroclus, Achilles. The stories, like the men’s fates, are already known, and Logue does not tamper with them, allowing us to experience Agamemnon’s egomaniacal stupidity, Ajax’s single-minded devotion to his men, Helen’s brave but ultimately hopeless defiance of Aphrodite. But in the heroes’ speeches, Logue shifts to a loose blank verse that intensifies the pathos of "big men falling a long way," as Logue defines tragedy. It is there in Patroclus’ dying words to Hector, which remind us that when men kill each other in war, they are also killing themselves:

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.

Logue forces us to grieve with Achilles over this loss, and the intense physicality of Achilles’ misery strikes us again and again with Logue’s skillful repetitions and his direct commands:

Down on your knees, Achilles. Further down.
Now forward on your hands and thrust your face into the filth,
Push filth into your open eyes, and howling, howling,
Sprawled howling, howling in the filth,
Ripping out locks of your long redcurrant-coloured hair,
Trowel up its dogshit with your mouth.

And Logue captures the sheer hatred fueling Achilles’ revenge when he depicts him staring at the divinely-forged armor his mother, the Nereid Thetis, has brought him: "Slitting his eyes against the flare, some said, / But others thought the hatred shuttered by his lids / Made him protect the metal."

Logue’s death in 2011 left War Music unfinished, and some scenes that readers of Homer most appreciate and use to judge the translator’s art are missing, including the warm family interaction between Hector, his wife Andromache, and their infant son Astyanax (who ultimately will be thrown from the ramparts by Achilles’ son Neoptolemus, his mother taken as Neoptolemus’ slave); Achilles’s defiant address to Hector, when he tells him "There can be no covenants between lions and men"; and the culminating fight, when Achilles slays Hector and seals his own fate.

But in the section titled Big Men Falling a Long Way, editor Christopher Reid gives us tantalizing glimpses of Logue at work. Reid provides, for example, Logue’s "Poss. Sims," extended similes he could deploy at appropriate moments in the poem (just as the ancient Homeric poets would have done in their oral performances), as well as several scenes in various stages of development, the most important of which is Achilles’ encounter with Priam, when the Trojan King sneaks into the Greek camp to beg for the corpse of his son Hector. Logue weaves the plaintive plea of Priam’s speech into the narration, muting its drama, perhaps, but deepening its power:

Beside these steps they parked King Priam’s litter,
Where, but above him, lord Achilles, waiting, let
The old king get himself up out of it
Onto the stage, and, kneeling, kiss his hands:
The hands that killed his son.

Logue’s death also prevented him from composing the famous description of Achilles’ shield. But Reid supplies us with Logue’s tantalizing note, in which he described his plans: "Homer describes the creation in Heaven of a new shield […] The new shield’s face is covered with designs that show the world as Homer knew it. This passage will be extended. The pictures on the shield will reflect our world."

No minstrel would ever tell the whole Iliad in one sitting, and so Logue’s abrupt departure connects us once more with those ancient audiences. We will never have the vision of a shield reflecting Achilles’ world and ours. But in another way, we do have it, we have Logue’s War Music, and by staring into its unfinished yet gleaming surface, we glimpse past, present, and future at once. Like Achilles with his armor, we can stare into "the holy tungsten like a star."

Published under: Book reviews