All Day Permanent Red
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2003)
Christopher Logue is a modern rhapsode. Students of Greek antiquity will know that rhapsodes were professional performers of epic poetry. Splendidly attired, they dramatized the deeds of long-dead heroes and immortal gods, as portrayed by Homer and his like, before private audiences and at public festivals.
But rhapsodes were more than mere poets. Plato’s claim that some were possessed by the same “divine madness” that inspired poetic creation. The term rhapsode, literally translated, means “stitcher of songs.” This meaning likely derives from the tremendous length of, say, the Odyssey, and the difficulty of reciting it in full. One suspects rhapsodes often simply chose key scenes, and wove them into a coherent and compelling whole. Plato’s insight, then, can be taken descriptively, as recognizing that something of the poet’s skill goes into a rhapsode’s adaptations. On the other hand, it may be an aesthetic judgment. Perhaps some rhapsodes, like Ion in Plato’s dialogue, were so good at their craft one could not help but rank them alongside the great poets.
Logue is a Londoner, now in his late seventies. For decades, he has dedicated himself to adapting Homer’s Iliad. The resulting poem, War Music, is of a piece with the rhapsodic tradition, with all the accolades Plato’s judgment implies. The project began as an account of Patroclus’s ill-fated intervention on behalf of the embattled Greeks fighting the Trojan War. This brief chapter was eventually enlarged into a full rendering of Books 16 through 19 of the Iliad, which covers the Patroclus episode and Achilles’ subsequent reconciliation with the Greeks. Logue then turned to the Iliad’s beginnings. Kings gives us Books One and Two, from Achilles’ withdrawal from the Greek alliance, his deadly curse on his former comrades, to the eventual resumption of hostilities. Next came The Husbands, an account of Books Three and Four, when Hector, the Trojan commander, attempts to end the war by arranging a duel between Paris and Menelaus, whose rival claims to the beautiful Helen provoked Greece’s invasion of Troy. These books were recently collected and released under the title War Music.
War Music is a unique and ambitious work. Its novelty lies in the poem’s rhapsodic character. Not a translation (Logue admits he is Greek-less), the poet himself calls it an adaptation. Homer’s plot is reduced to its broadest strokes, and reconfigured from that framework. Scenes are deleted, others added. Logue pulls new material from world literature (Chaucer, Catallus, Shakespeare, Kipling, Celine) and his own ample imagination.
If War Music is allusive, it is also cinematic. The techniques of film pervade Logue’s poetic approach. He zooms in, out, and around events. Kings even uses the peculiarly filmic device in which flashbacks break out of their mnemonic frame and take on independent narrative existence.
Finally, there is the beautiful language. As a writer, Logue is bold and muscular; he is precise, hard, and unequivocal. He is as metaphorical as Homer, but less formulaic: “Think of a raked sky-wide venetian blind. / Add the receding traction of its slats / Of its slats of its slats as a hand draws it up. / Hear the Greek army get to its feet.” Where Homer’s diction is formally poetic, Logue’s is a mixture of high- and lowbrow (his soldiers’ names include Meep and Bubblegum). And his portrayal of war brutally graphic, yet shockingly affirmative:
Slip into the fighting.
Into a low-sky site crammed with huge
Half-naked men, brave, loyal, fit, slab-
Men who came face to face with gods,
Who spoke with gods,
Leaping onto each other like woves
Screaming, kicking, slicing, hacking, ripping
Thumping their chests:
“I am full of the god!”
Some readers may take offense, but few will fault the quality of Logue’s free verse and iambic rhythms.
All Day Permanent Red is the latest installment of War Music. Subtitled “The First Battle Scenes of Homer’s Iliad Rewritten,” the material it covers extends from the end of Book Four to the middle of Book Six. Logue tells the story a failed Trojan effort to divide and defeat their Greek assailants. Hector and company maneuver skillfully, but the wily Odysseus ascertains the plan and acts to disrupt it. So the fighting persists, and the episode ends exactly where it began: with Greece and Troy locked in bitter stalemate.
Interestingly, Red’s subtitle differs from those of previous volumes of War Music instead of providing “an account of” the Iliad, the poem has here been “rewritten.” The change, I suspect, is meant to reflect how radically Logue has departed from the original. Simply put, the story above just isn’t found in the Iliad.
Traditionally, Homer has the Greeks dominate the opening battle scenes. They touch off the fighting, killing three Trojans before a single Greek falls. And throughout, Trojan casualties pile up. Odysseus takes down seven alone. Another Greek, Diomedes, goes on a positive rampage, massacring 11 Trojans. He even menaces Troy’s Olympian allies, charging Apollo and spearing Aphrodite’s hand. Diomedes’ sublime hubris, his terrible yet joyful bloodlust, inspires some of the best scenes in all of the Iliad. Logue, however, ignores them.
That is a shame. One would like to have seen what he could do with them. Still, Logue’s innovations serve a purpose. They solve a glaring problem in Homer, by making Hector a frightening presence.
Homer’s Greeks fear Hector greatly. He is often compared to Achilles, the consummate warrior—indeed, were personified. Hector himself also expresses a sense of his own frightening power. The reader, however, seldom sees evidence to back up these claims. The regard Homer extends to Hector seems out of proportion to his actual performance on the battlefield. His massacres are rare, and barely match Odysseus’s in ferocity, much less Achilles’. And his one shining moment—Patroclus’ defeat—is marred by divine assistance. Credit for that is rightfully due to Apollo.
Our dominant impression of Hector is one of a cultured individual, humane, and morally motivated. A sturdy fighter, but no Achilles. Hector prefers domestic comforts to “the fame combat alone can bring,” and fights out of duty to his kingly father, his noble family, his city, and his comrades.
In Red, by contrast, Hector is “… an East African lion / Nose tip to tail tuft ten, eleven feet / Slouching towards you / Swaying its head from side to side / Doubling its pace, its gold-black mane / that stretches down its belly to its groin / Catching the sunlight as it hits / Twice its own length a beat, then leaps / closed / the scarlet insides of its mouth / parting a roar as loud as sail-sized flames / and lands, slam-scattering the herd.”
Logue has accomplished something needful. I wonder, however, if this local victory may ultimately imperil the war. For it upsets the balance of Homer’s plot. The Greeks winning the early skirmishes; later, as a consequence of Achilles’ curse, they are pushed back against their ships. Logue’s championing of Troy removes this reversal, and deflates Homer’s divine irony. The gods tricked Greece, and their early successes make defeat this more painful, more humiliating, which is precisely what Achilles’ wanted.
Logue also robs Patroclus of a portion of his moral heroism. For one can ask, if his comrades were always at a disadvantage, why wait so long to come to their rescue? An element of cruelty is unintentionally ascribed to Patroclus, or at least dangerous inattention.
The problems, I admit, are speculative. We don’t know how Logue will complete the rest of War Music. The results may surprise us, and indeed prove me wrong. If, however, All Day Permanent Red shows signs of Logue slipping, it is still a powerful work, full of the same verve that informs all of War Music, and has revitalized Homer for the modern age.
ContributorBradley H. Kerr