Like Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Christopher Logue’s “account” of the Iliad is an imagist epic. It is surely less various and original than its modernist precursors, but it can’t be matched for sheer pleasure. With plot and character given, Logue attends to local intensities and rhythmic development, offering us animated sequences of unfolding action. Moreover, he understands the mechanism of the simile as well as any other modern poet: the electric jolt of defamiliarization, followed, in a flicker, by our recognition of accuracy. Take Achilles’ description of Agamemnon as “Slow as an arrow fired feathers first / To puff another’s worth, / But watchful as a cockroach of his own.” Take the leap (in Kings) from the competing voices of the Trojan council to modern Skopje, shortly before the disastrous earthquake of 1963:
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.
Later, the council’s tumult diminishes, until “All were as quiet as children drawing.”
In particular, Logue makes sublime jump cuts between the world of humans and that of gods: “Patroclus—his face kept down. // Firelight against a painted box. // 10,000 miles away / A giant child rests her chin on the horizon / And blows a city down.” Always, the earnest dignity of human prayer—antiphonal passages of elaborate sacrifice—contrasts with the childish brutality of the deities. As Hera says, “I want Troy dead. / Its swimming pools and cellars filled with limbs; / Its race, rotten beneath the rubble, oozing pus; / Even at noon the Dardanelles lit up; / All that is left a bloodstain by the sea.” In such lines, Logue manages to be both gauche and exhilarating (here, it’s worth remembering that he collaborated with the filmmaker Ken Russell).
But in the long run, the poem proves less remarkable for its flash than for its sinuous movement. In Logue’s Paris Review interview, he comments, “None of my contemporaries seem to be interested in the things that interest me, such as fast, clear, several-stranded narrative, action, character, violence.” For evidence, consider the following passage from “GBH”:
Not your day, king Merionez, not your day:
Dust in the air? or smoke? a shout—
Source out of sight, but near, but out of sight
Behind the crest, trough, crest, trough, crest,
Now soon, now soon to see
—Put down that armour, isolated lord—
Hector with Gray, Chylabborak, Anaxapart,
Outdistancing the wind that comes from Greece:
—‘If I leave you, Patroclus, what?’—
And Hector’s blood-cry, Hector’s plume
—‘If I do not, what will become of me?’—
Among the other, nodding plumes;
And all their banners rising one by one,
One after one, and then another one:
—‘Prince Hector’s one of them’—
Come between Leto’s Chair, the corniced horn,
Fast as a horned viper over bathroom tiles,
Into the yellow bay.
Here we find the vivid perceptual unfolding for which Logue is justly famous. But we also find his varied, extended syntax, with a sort of bravura that can collect voices as it goes. And as in the loveliest passages of his poetry, the blank verse occasionally drops into tetrameter or trimeter, supple in its variations and patterned repetitions. These lines resonate with irregular rhymes and near rhymes, the rhyme of day and bay setting the passage off as a unit of thought (a technique that Logue makes use of with some frequency).
Logue’s Iliad is full of atmospherics, dust and cloud, specific qualities of sunlight, moonlight, starlight, firelight, and bronze reflections thereof. But even more, it’s full of sounds. When the Greeks draw their swords, “this dis-scabbarding was heard in Troy / Much like a shire-sized dust-sheet torn in half.” The Greeks move as silently as if on wool. And the Trojans “shout, shout, shout, smashed shouted shout” like autumn skeins of geese honking in their flight. One thinks of Pound’s “poor old Homer blind, blind as a bat, / Ear, ear for the sea-surge, murmur of old men’s voices.” As Logue explains to The Paris Review, “Homer is full of noises. So, although I know it sounds a bit daft, I collect noises, the sound of steel keys hitting concrete perhaps, or a letter dropping into a half-filled post box.”
Logue means “collect” literally: he kept file folders of clipping for “lighting effects” and “sound effects,” bits waiting to work their way into the epic. For filmy light, he takes from the opening to Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. For Haephestus’ crippling plummet, he borrows from Milton’s description of Satan’s fall. It’s difficult to say how much of Logue’s Iliad is collage. The term “pastiche” could be applied everywhere, yet it hardly applies, with its implication of hodgepodge. In an interview with The Observer, Logue is cheeky (he often could be) about his method: “Almost everything I do is based on other texts anyway. Without plagiarism, there would be no literature. I’m a rewrite man, a complete rewrite man, like our Willy Shakespeare.”
Linear B, the Bronze Age Aegean script, was finally deciphered in the early 1950s, giving us the administrative workings of the Homeric age: flocks tended, crops harvested, goods manufactured, and so forth. Tablet after tablet of authentic stuff, in a rendering dry as dust. Meanwhile, Logue was embarking on his epic, at an impossibly slow pace, with no knowledge of Ancient Greek, distant from the Greek text and its context, distant from what we usually think of as actual experience. As Logue reminds us in his Paris Review interview, “These things occur in a nonexistent world, set in the middle of a nonexistent event: a ten-year war fought over a woman.” None of it should work, as poetry. But should has no bearing, happily, on this fiercely exuberant, vivid writing.
Born in 1970, Devin Johnston spent his childhood in North Carolina. He is the author of four previous books of poetry and two books of prose, including Creaturely and Other Essays. He works for Flood Editions, an independent publishing house, and teaches at Saint Louis University in Missouri. Far-Fetched is his latest collection.
Christopher Logue (1926-2011), poet, playwright, scriptwriter, and actor, was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire. He moved to Paris in 1951, where he published his first books, Wand and Quadrant; Seven Sonnets; and Devil, Maggot and Son. Logue won the Paris Review / Bernard F. O’Connor Award and was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his contributions to literature.