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Monday, June 02, 2003

Book Reviews

Permanent Logue

All Day Permanent Red by Christopher Logue. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 2003, 64 pages, $18.00.

All Day Permanent Red is Christopher Logue’s latest installment in an ongoing project several decades in the making. What began back in the Fifties as a commission from the BBC for an English-language version of Achilles’ fight with the river god (which appears in the twenty-first book of The IIiad), later published in the English literary magazine Encounter, has grown into a recognizable version of enough of Homer’s narrative to encourage Logue’s many admirers in the belief that he is now determined in his own way and at his own speed to bring the entire poem over into his very special, stylized, and beautiful contrivance of language.

There are several parts now published. War Music is an account of Books 16 through 19 published in 1981, followed by Kings, an account of Books 1 and 2 published in 1991, and Husbands, an account of Books 3 and 4 published in 1994 (all American editions from Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The cover of All Day Permanent Red bears the legend, “the first battle scenes of the Iliad rewritten.” Logue has called what he does “an account,” not a translation. An account is a narrative or record of events, an acknowledgment of them, one might say. Logue, an established poet who knows no Greek, has read a number of English-language translations, some of which are considered to be great poems in their own right — one thinks immediately of Pope, of course, or Chapman — and he has consulted any number of classical scholars. From this, he has come to an understanding of a cultural phenomenon that we may call Homer’s Iliad, something far more pervasive and firmly fixed in the minds of the English-speaking population than the text of the ancient Greek poem. How many persons in this country have not read portions of The Iliad in a variety of translations, once watered down perhaps in grade school, again the ipsissima verba, so to speak, of Fagles, Fitzgerald, or Lattimore, in a high-school literature class, and finally yet again in a college humanities course? The convergence of these memories constitutes an Iliad greater than its parts, of which the actual ancient Greek text is the merest bit for only a very small group.

“Account,” then. This is an important distinction, provoking any number of complicated questions about the nature of translation. Many translators work word for word, nuance by nuance, in the belief that there is a rather exact approximation to be found between two languages. Others despair of any such exactitude, but try in a somewhat more general way to include everything that they perceive the original text to seem to be saying. Critics of both these schools deny that any language can convey with accuracy the sense, mood, tone, implication, or style that a reader seeks and finds in the original text. A poem is a contrivance of words, an artifice; take the words away and the poem is gone; put in its place an approximation from another language and you have an entirely new artifact. There is no way — metaphorically speaking — to make a photocopy of a poem. What Logue has achieved, to my mind brilliantly, is to make a poem that is his twenty-first-century notion of The Iliad, his “account” of it (see my discussion in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, 14, 2, 1987-88, pp. 93-107).

These techniques reappear in All Day Permanent Red but with a difference: “The first battle scenes of the Iliad rewritten” suggests something new. One is tempted to interpret that statement — Logue has had considerable experience with film and television — as the definition of a “rewrite,” a technical term for a scriptwriter’s refashioning of an existent script to make it “play” better, bring out different aspects, nuances, make it work better for an audience, or simply to satisfy the director or producer. In every other portion of The Iliad that Logue has so far tackled, there is a demonstrable and powerful story line with which he has worked. Hence, no doubt, the word “account.” He has remarked that his first great mentor, Donald Carne-Ross, who commissioned the river battle passage, later suggested the sixteenth through the nineteenth books to him because their narrative was a mini-Iliad, so to speak, a strong story in its own right. By contrast, the opening battle scenes of The Iliad, which begin with the great simile of the sea crashing on the shore (at lines 4.422ff.), have texture but far less story. There is the conventional androktasia, the ancient Greek word for battle killings, little vignettes in which the poet, in what is almost a list, mentions the names of those who meet in conflict (one to die, one to survive), with the barest contextual attention to weaponry, fatal injuries, and death throes. Woven in and around these is the description of Diomedes slashing, spearing, and killing a number of the enemy, even wounding the goddess Aphrodite, who descends to the battlefield to intervene for her son, Aeneas. This star turn, called in Greek an aristeia — that moment when a warrior surpasses everyone else in the field — is essentially a shtick, one in the bag of narrative tricks that the bard has available to keep his audience interested, not unlike the solo of a jazz musician during a number.

It works here to set up a real alternative to the malingering Achilles, but also to motivate the Trojan hero, Hector, to return to the city (the poet needs a hero-with-family scene). There is also an encounter between two heroes, Tlepolemos and Sarpedon, the small vignette of the androktasia writ large; and then, in symmetry with it, there is an altogether courtly encounter between Diomedes and Glaukon when they lay aside their weapons, introduce themselves, and part so as to fight as enemies another day.

The language in this section of The Iliad is remarkable for the higher statistic of repeated lines, half-lines, formulaic phrases. This is the meat and potatoes of oral epic poetry. In a war poem of this length — some 16,000 lines — battle narrative occurs on and off throughout, a kind of field or background, some would say, for the special events, perhaps in some ways akin to the television that one keeps on hour after hour with the volume low, “just for company.” We really have no idea of the way in which an audience listened to something this long. Homeric poetry, the origins of which will probably never be known, is generally hypothesized as a conventional language system, metrical and formulaic, built up over time, attached to the armature of traditional stories, which a trained performer can summon up from memory on demand for an evening or festival day, each time the same yet different, for an audience that like the poet himself depends upon orality as the only form of communication.

The Iliad story begins with a quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles that ends with the latter withdrawing from the field of battle. The poet then quite artificially motivates a review of the troops so as to give the audience a list of the dramatis personae, so to speak, which will appear in the ensuing thousands of lines (which, since this list is a traditional part of his repertoire, has every name conceivable, not just the men who matter in the subsequent narrative). Then the poet introduces a duel between Menelaus and Paris, the two men involved with Helen, the former her husband, the latter her lover (or as the Trojans might like to believe, her second husband), so as to motivate a view of life behind the walls in Troy. The truce for the duel is violated when Pandarus wounds Menelaus with an arrow; it is time to get back to fighting, which motivates Agamemnon to review his troops.

We are now well into the fourth book of the poem, and the poet is clearly taking the long view: battle in this, the tenth, year of the long, drawn-out siege has yet to get underway. Now comes the simile of the wave crashing against the shore, and battle begins. Everything up to this point forms the material from which Logue assembled Kings and Husbands although he closed the latter with the wounding of Menelaus, Agamemnon’s cries for revenge, and the build-up for battle, leaving out the review of the troops.

The Homeric poems, as we imagine them, were composed to be recited orally, listened to by persons who were preliterate. Reading, on the other hand, is essential to the experience of Logue’s Homeric poem. Typography is crucial; spaces between words, between lines, are as important as the bare canvas in the late Cezanne paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Homeric style rides on a superabundance of detail, the auditor is drowned in them, essential to something heard where a moment missed will never return. Logue is masterful in what he omits, in the distance on the page between utterances. Here is the opening of his piece:

Slope. Strip. Slope.
Right. Centre. Left.
Road. Track. Cross.
Ridge. Plain. Sea.

The camera pans across the field before Troy, where the ensuing battle will take place. It is empty, ready, waiting. The ominous thud of the monosyllables tracking the viewer across this expanse makes fearful expectation for the coming moment. Everywhere, the language is so spare that the effect is thunderous, overwhelming. Logue conjures the thousand and one dramas of the battlefield enacted simultaneously, chaotically, unobserved by the disconnected word, phrase, quoted speech. Everything is disjointed, a mosaic. At the same time, like his paradigm, he insists upon the humanity of the event in telling the mini-histories of so many who fall dying, as for instance:

Right now near Hyacinth the son of Hyacinth, a Greek
Able to quarry slate, throw a fair pot (and decorate it)
He chose to follow Agamemnon….

This is a man who within seconds will be decapitated in the fight. A hallmark of Homeric epic is the extended simile, nowhere more apparent than in the great battle narratives that fill the epic. These are sufficiently elaborated so as to evoke a world, a drama, a view apart from the events, persons, or things in the text to which the comparison is being made. Logue “rewrites” the simile, introducing a splendid 12-line description of a lion, set apart in the text (“See an East African lion…”), coming on, as it were, at the reader, who is behind the camera. And then, a single line set below this (“That is how Hektor came on us”), a quotation, a soldier, not a poet, seeing the lion in simile.

Logue has rounded up all the usual suspects (“Nestor, the evening star./Ajax, his silent fortress,…Fourth — grizzled and hook-tapped nosed — the king of Crete/ Idomeneo”), and the battle, like its counterpart in the Homeric text of Books 5 and 6, is a confrontation between Diomedes and Hector with Aeneas getting a little cameo role. But the Trojan army Logue introduces is deliberately made foreign, endowed with names like T’lesspiax, Chylabborak, Barbarinth. Then there is the outrageous, Bubblegum (but can one tell to which side he is attached?). Bubblegum features in a marvelous vignette whose plunge into battle, fight, and death is rendered in the speech of a sportscaster, a reminder that war’s power play is the same as a game. The contemporary language and attitude, like the allusion to generals and battles throughout history (King Richard calling for another horse, Marshal Ney shattering his saber on a cannonball, etc.), make the reader think again of Homer’s place in war poetry, as the paradigmatic apologist for all time for heroism in bloodletting. Logue’s chance glance at a lipstick advertisement gave him the perfect bloody title for his battle poem, All Day Permanent Red.

The sonorous dactylic hexameter of Homer inevitably stylizes and distances the elemental brutality of battle. Logue’s pentameter line of various length is far harsher, the specifics of his language more direct:

“And Palt on his hands and knees,
Holding the slick blue-greenish loops of his intestines up
Though some were dragging in the dust.”

The simile of the ocean storm with which Homer introduces this great battle scene has been recast by Logue well into his narrative (pp 37f.). It constitutes the second great wave of battle, typographically established with a new beginning on page 33.

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 tons of aircraft carrier
Dare not sport its beam.
But Troy, afraid, yet more afraid
Lest any lord of theirs should notice any one of them
Flinching behind his mask
Has no alternative.
Just as those waves
Grown closer as they mount the continental shelf
Lift into breakers scoop the blue and then
Smother the glistening shingle
Such is the fury of the Greeks….

The ecstasy in the battle description that follows comes right out of the swirling, boiling mass of water:

Drop into it
Noise so clamorous it sucks.
You rush your pressed-flower hackles out
To the perimeter.
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 found at Troy

Squeeze nickel through that rush of Greekoid scum!
Oh wonderful, most wonderful, and then again more wonderful.
A bond no word or lack of words can break,
Love above love!

Homer’s simile of the surf on the beach allows his present-day reader, acculturated to film viewing, to see the entire scene as from a helicopter or a very high boom camera. One might speculate that the same sense of height was available to ancient Mediterranean peoples, whose high peaks presented views not unlike the sensation of making a final approach into an airport (one thinks of Erice or Pergamon, for example). But Homer’s cinematic style, as we must label it, is never so obvious as in the way the battle that rages in the fifth and sixth books disappears while the camera closes in on a scene in which the Greek Diomedes and the Trojan Glaukon stop to talk and exchange armor. Thereafter, we are with Hector in Troy. Logue’s poetic camera goes up, up, up, as he ends his poem with a vast overview of the Mediterranean lands carried through place names, through the verb “see.” Just as Homer takes his audience up to Olympus accompanying the wounded goddess Aphrodite, so here:

He sees the Islands of the West.
He who? Why, God, of course.
Who sighs before He looks
Back to the ridge that is, save for a million footprints,
Empty now.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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