Claire Crowther

Hard­wrought Works

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

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