War Music, Christopher Logue, Faber, 2015, edited by Christopher Reid, 341pp £20 (hardback)
Spills, Angela Leighton, Carcanet, 2016, 183pp, £12.99 (paperback)
Homer’s Iliad has been adored – not too strong a word – for over two thousand years. English readers have thrilled in previous centuries to translations by Chapman and Pope. One of our greatest living poets, Alice Oswald, recently tightened it into a roll call of bloody deaths in battle. ( Memorial) But for our era, it is surely Christopher Logue’s ‘account’ of this Greek epic that will be remembered. War Music, now assembled from several books including one unfinished at his death (2011), is, says editor Christopher Reid, Logue’s ‘magnum opus’.
The achievement of this breezily contemporary tour de force is to make ‘a thing of beauty from a loathsome thing’: the horror of war is also a metaphor for the human condition. Men and women are defined and measured by war – nothing else happens in the 300-plus pages of Logue’s text. As in all wars, legend is politicized by gender and caste and urged on by anthropomorphized gods, that mean and scheming aristocracy. Here is the goddess Athena:
And she, Teenaged Athena with the prussic eyes, Split Ithaca’s voice Into as many parts as there were heads. So each lord heard:
‘You are the best. You hold your ground. You were born best. You know you are the best
Because you rule. Because you take, and keep, Land for the mass. Where they can breed. And pray. And pay You to defend them. You to see custom done. What cannot be avoided, you endure.’
Logue thanks women especially, in his memoir ( Prince Charming), for starting him on the project – Xanthe Wakefield of the BBC World Service, and Doris Lessing. At the time, the 1950s, Logue and other intellectuals were banding together against nuclear weapons. World War Two had not gone well for him: at the end, he was court martialled for stealing Army paybooks and imprisoned for two years.
These biographical details suggest a poet who is anything but concerned to glorify war (though he liked a quarrel). A long exposition on heroism and male on male sadism, with female slavery thrown in – why was this a must-write for Logue? Amid modern bloodshed and political corruption, he tore apart an ancient text to examine combat as the endlessly justified barbarism it is.
Logue, who did not read Greek, first looked through various translations of the Iliad:
making an abstract of the sequence as I went, listing this or that turn of phrase, dropping or conflating this or that speech, these or those actions, until I had a clear storyline... I could reverse the sequence to test its strength overall, as painters hold a canvas to a mirror to inspect its composition afresh. [This inspection] provoked ideas of what might be added to it from a different part of the Iliad, or for that matter, from the day’s newspaper…
He used post-it notes for his workaday rendition of book after book and revised continuously for fifty years. The text became organic. Reid points this out:
one of his finest and most original longer poems, ‘New Numbers’,
may be said to have as its very raison d’etre a fluid responsiveness to changing circumstances that would have prevented it from ever achieving a fixed state. Where his Homeric volumes were concerned, he amended and corrected long after publication.
Such fluidity allows War Music to go beyond Logue’s useful basic iambic pentameter to reveal the personality of each line – short, long, in clumps, alone, spoken, thought, loud or soft, boxed, centred, enlarged:
Across the rucked, sunstruck Aegean, the Mousegod’s voice, Loud as ten thousand crying together, Cried:
So loud Even the Yellow Judges giving law Half-way across the world’s circumference paused.
Logue wrote screenplays and acted. Perhaps this helped him to create the visual quality and sharp cut of his scenes. Often, the action seems to flicker like a film:
Take an industrial lift. Pack it with men fighting each other, Smashing each other back against its governors So the packed cage shoots floors up, then down, Then up again, then down, lights out, then stops, But what does not stop are the blows, Fists, feet, teeth, knees, the screams of triumph and of agony
‘Greek, Get back where you belong!’ ‘Get back where you belong! Troy will fall in God’s good time, But not to you!’
As up they go, then stop, then down they go. No place on earth without its god.
The range of reference is huge and a brief guide to Homer’s characters would have been welcome. But this is our war too, full of contemporary description:
‘I saw her running round. I took the photograph. It summed the situation up. He was her son. They put it out in colour. Right? My picture went around the world.’
Education being non-classical these days, there is small chance for most of us of reading the original Iliad and less of understanding Homer’s personal take on war. We can grasp Logue, though. War Music is a riveting, brilliantly observed twentieth-century military show over which Homer, whoever he was, looms and broods.
Spills, Angela Leighton’s fourth collection, is a delicately balanced mix of prose and poetry. She explains in the Preface: ‘The forms of memoir, story, prose poem and poem are always permeable, always sliding across thin walls into one another … the structure might recall a game of spillikins.’
I can see the essay too, in Spills’s mix of forms. Family and landscapes from Scotland and Italy, the to and fro of Leighton’s upbringing, give her ideas to mull over or suggest data she might make up perhaps – because why shouldn’t the odd contributions of imagination be counted as spills? Here is a typical prose section, ‘Last Word’, set in the Arran cemetery where her father, a composer, is buried:
‘At the beginning of Arran’s most dramatic glen, once mined for its barites – from which barium sulphate derives, used in X-rays of the intestinal tract – is one of those lonely cemeteries, built without
chapel or church to guard it from other spirits of the place. It is walled in on all sides and within hearing of the sea…
It seemed lonely there – nothing to hear except small rushes of wind and the whisper of the sea. Was it lonely? Yes, in some ways heartbreakingly so. We felt it like a constriction of breath. Perhaps the living cannot help but imagine how the dead, returning some night, searching for the body’s last place, might be stricken to find no-one else around…. So yes, it was lonely…’
Leighton’s style, in prose and poems, is gentle, well wrought, safe-sounding: ‘I’ve written all my life along narrow lines, / rules that show the way from this to that.’ (‘Epistolary’) Even so, her observations struggle mightily with their written arrangements. In very many poems, she poses a question, maybe one that generates the poem’s journey as the first halfline of ‘Aftermath: Parasite’: ‘What’s this? War work?’ Or the question might be rhetorical [‘It’s where you put things, see?’ (‘Below-Stairs’)] or narrative [‘once, she asked me: are the crocuses out?’ (‘Crocus’)] but most of all, Leighton’s questions address a longing to get at the meat of a moment:
Old pal, sweet puffin! are you dead for nothing at the edge of the world? flowered on the grass where no flowers grow? Good Friday’s cold seems colder for these colours spilled – (‘Easterly’)
In a striking sequence, ‘Canticles for a Passion’, Leighton looks at the process whereby revelation can arrange itself in spilled words:
A clutch of twigs, the cradled fall-out from a gust of wind, rough splints, spindles or withies, pencils or spills–
whatever they are, just a cross-hatched arrangement of space and air, an architecture of accidentals, an absence addressed–
like a rook’s nest, rock-a-bye high in a lacework of trees, or a child’s scribble, erasing the face that was smiling beneath–
as if you discerned the spirit caught in a crucifixion of sticks, or else the soul, blown like smoke from its bone kindling.
Spills’s lines are not so narrow as she claims: there is a pacey variety of verse and shape. ‘69388’ is stamped with holes, appropriately for this evocation of a cellist-prisoner playing in a death camp:
Gut-sick I stroke exact peg-stretched catgut cattle-stamped I stop double-stop legered notes
Some of the sixteen prose pieces provide a background to the poems; the story of Anita Wallfisch (‘In the Music Room’), explains ‘69388’. Wallfisch, a cellist, played in Auschwitz for Dr Mengele:
Schumann’s Kinderszenen, with its Foreign Lands and Places, Blind Man’s Bluff, At the Fireside and Dreaming – this last being what she played, to order, to her one-man audience taking time out to dream – brings to that particular music room the deep, irresolvable counter-shock of history.
The final section, translations of Sicilian poet Leonardo Sciascia, offers both strict and free versions. Other translators double like this but Leighton’s rationale for the practice sounds a note of exhaustion at the end of a hard-wrought book: ‘Between strict and free renderings, adherence to sense and adherence to the makings of a poem in English, I have tried to catch something of the original, even if only ‘between’.’ The poetics of Spills is broader and simpler than this modest binary. It’s the meditative noticing of things in an everyday assortment of stuff. Feet, for example: ‘Queer things, / bearing an uprightness on calibrated bones.’ (‘Footing’) Leighton offers a ministry of attention. We need that.