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Logue's odyssey.

I was waiting to hear what the English poet Christopher Logue had done to the Iliad, and I was worried. The omens, threatening an evening of eat-your-greens earnestness, would have troubled the most phlegmatic of soothsayers. As for the theater in which I found myself, it was more depressing than Ford's after Booth. A long way off Broadway in all but the most geographical sense, it was a hard-seat hall a few minutes' walk from those now-vanished towers. The only thing emptier than the bleak, Beckett-bare stage was an auditorium begging for tumbleweed. We had been told that the entire cast (the performance was a dramatization of some of Logue's verse) would number exactly three: three actresses, to be precise.

The plains of Troy. The end of a long siege. Great armies clash. Achilles. Ajax. Hector. New York City. Three girls. T-shirts. No armor. Not a chariot in sight. An evening, I thought, of modernist austerity, dreary iconoclasm, and banal feminist resentment loomed grimly ahead.

I was wrong. What followed was simply remarkable, an hour or so of extraordinary, compelling drama, beautifully played by the three actresses I had been too ready to malign in a work (produced by Verse Theatre Manhattan) that had the class--and the modesty--to allow Homer's tale and Logue's lyricism to weave their own enchantment. And so they did.

Here's Achilles setting off to avenge Patroclus:
 The chariot's basket dips. The whip
 Fires in between the horses' ears.
 And as in dreams, or at Cape Kennedy, they
 Slowly it seems, their chests like royals, yet
 Behind them in a double plume the sand curls
 Is barely dented by their flying hooves,
 And wheels that barely touch the world,
 And the wind slams shut behind him.

The reference to Cape Kennedy is characteristic of Logue's "account" of the Iliad (he doesn't pretend to understand classical Greek, and has never described what he is doing as translation), a rendering peppered with allusions to the millennia that have passed since Homer first told his story of bickering gods, warring men, and a doomed city. These references don't jar; there's nothing crass, no stretching to be hip about them. They remind us that some of the force of this epic derives from its own no less epic antiquity, and they do so sometimes obliquely, sometimes specifically: Achilles's "helmet screams against the light;/ Scratches the eye; so violent it can be seen/ Across three thousand years."

This playfulness with chronology extends to the way in which Logue shuffles Homer's narrative, chopping here, adding there, and then (sometimes, it seems) simply throwing up the pieces into the air for the sheer fun of seeing where, and how, they land. In part, this reflects the way that Logue's odyssey through the Iliad began back in 1959, with an invitation to contribute a passage to a new BBC version of Homer's poem (a classier Maecenas then than now). This set in motion a process that led Logue to his Patrocleia (based on the Iliads sixteenth book) and Pax (inspired by the nineteenth). With those completed, Logue "realized that conflating Books 17 and i8 as GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm, an English legal term for serious forms of criminal assault) would allow me to try my hand at something new--600-odd lines devoted almost entirely to violent, mass action--which would unite Patrocleia and Pax." Packaged together as War Music (1981), they did so triumphantly.

Naturally enough, this most cinematic (he has worked in the movies) and leisurely (it took ten years) of poets next offered up a prequel, Kings (1991), his account of the Iliad's first two books. This was followed by The Husbands (1994) (Books 3 and 4), and, in 2003, All Day Permanent Red (the title is, typically for this magpie-writer, stolen from an advertisement for Revlon lipstick), a blood-drenched rewriting of Homer's first battle scenes:
 Slip into the fighting.
 Into a low-sky site crammed with huge men,
 Half-naked men, brave, loyal, fit, slab-sided
 Men who came face to face with gods, who
 spoke with gods,
 Leaping onto each other like wolves
 Screaming, kicking, slicing, hacking, ripping,
 Thumping their chests:
 "I am full of the god!"
 Blubbering with terror as they beg for their
 "Laid his trunk open from shoulder to hip--
 Like a beauty-queen's sash."
 Falling falling
 Top-slung steel chain-gates slumped onto

 Pipko, Bluefisher, Chuckerbutty, Lox:
 "Left all he had to follow Greece."
 "Left all he had to follow Troy."
 Clawing the ground calling out for their sons
 in revenge.

It's easy to discern that this poet of war and heroism is also something of a pacifist. Logue may be a former soldier, but his military service culminated with a spell in a British army jail located, with vaguely appropriate panache, in a crusader castle in Palestine. Later, he was involved with the UK's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a prominent, mercifully ineffective organization that misunderstood the Cold War for decades, and probably still does.

Nowadays, Logue, a man who remains, I imagine, a creature of 1950s bohemia (Soho, Paris, knew Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller, was--as Count Palmiro Vicarion--a writer of pornography for Maurice Girodias, the mid-century's most interesting publisher of naughty books), modestly and immodestly tells journalists that marching against nuclear weapons was a good way to pick up chicks.

The latest chapter in Logue's Homeric saga is Cold Calls (2005), a work more subdued in tone than what preceded it. Thanks to its winning, to widespread surprise, Britain's prestigious Whitbread Poetry Prize earlier this year, it has drawn more attention than anything he has written since War Music. Ironically, Cold Calls is far from the finest installment in Logue's ongoing masterpiece. Like an Oscar given to one of Hollywood's ancient, the award was probably a reward for longevity (Logue was born in 1926) as well as an admission that he should have received such recognition many years before.

This suspicion is only reinforced by the Whitbread judges' comment that Logue had brought the Iliad "bang up to date." Oh dear. They seem not to have noticed that there is nothing very much in that saga that needs renovation, a makeover, or a lick of fresh paint. As Logue himself has said, "It's more modern than modern." The Iliad is timeless. It always has been and, unless something very unexpected happens to human nature, it always will be. Four days after I saw that performance, those two towers were dust. The play was forced to close. When it re-opened, after a hiatus that only added to its force, American troops were in Afghanistan. Bang up to date? I think so.

If, in the end, Cold Calls disappoints, it is only slightly, and only when compared with some of the earlier volumes. Logue has set himself a high bar, and the piecemeal way in which his work appears does this latest chapter no favors. Within the context of his wider enterprise, Cold Calls is a success; it just has trouble standing alone in the spotlight. Scattered through its pages are hints that Prospero's bag of tricks is emptying. The starburst similes are beginning to stale, talk, yet again, of the Russian Front is a little tired, old hat, old helmet.

But it's too soon to write off the aged magician as he works away, chopping, changing, messing with, yet somehow never losing sight of his source. Cold Calls is billed as "War Music Continued," yet by beginning with a long battle sequence rooted in the events of the Iliad's fifth book, Logue abandons the nod to Homer's narrative contained in War Music's more or less sequential rendering of books 16 to 19. He then returns (briefly, sort of) to the chronological fold by using the Greek hero Diomed's (Diomedes) impious attack on Aphrodite (Homer, book 5) as an introduction to a passage inspired by the episode (Homer, book 21) in which the river god Scamander battles Achilles. It's neatly done, it's characteristic of the way that Logue weaves his way through Homer, and it paves the way for yet more games with the Iliads original plot.

According to Homer, Scamander's support for Troy was a matter of simple theopolitics. Fine, but a touch dull. Logue, still channeling Wardour Street, prefers something more seductive. Wounded by Diomed, the teary goddess of love ("her towel retained by nothing save herself") makes her way to the river to ask for its water's healing touch. Naughty Scamander ("astonished by his luck") is only too pleased to help. When, after a sexy, bawdy, teasing, imploring exchange, that towel finally "goes curling off' into the flow (as we, and wicked Count Palmiro Vicarion, always understood it would), we know that the smitten Scamander will oblige his Aphrodite by sweeping the Greeks away. And so the river does:
 Almost without a sound
 Its murmuring radiance became
 A dark, torrential surge
 Clouded with boulders, crammed with trees,
 as clamorous as if it were a sea,
 That lifted Greece, then pulled Greece down,
 Cars gone, masks gone, gone under,
 reappearing, gone

That whole passage is, typically for Logue, of the Iliad, yet not in it.

The same, broadly speaking, is true of what follows a little later, a foul-mouthed slanging-match between Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite, each dressed like celebrity trash, and behaving not like the goddesses of Olympus, but its fishwives. It leaves an impression, coarse and more than a little grotesque, that doesn't gel too well with the way that Logue has, in his earlier volumes, succeeded in conveying the beauty, power, willfulness, and menace of the gods, but the fault lies not with the Englishman, but (dare I say it) with the Greek. One of the more puzzling aspects of the Theomachy, the battle between the gods in Books 20 and 21, is the way that it begins in elemental grandeur but ends in a brawl and an exchange of insults, something that Homer presumably inserted as a respite, a moment of comic relief amid the relentless slaughter, Keystone muddled in with the carnage. Logue's take, for all its faults, works a great deal better.

If, after this, the concluding sections of Cold Calls are mildly disappointing, it's not so much for what they are as for what they might have been. In a book described as a continuation of War Music, Logue might have been expected to be building towards the death and desecration of Hector, the Iliad's tragic climax and a subject worthy of his skills. Instead this volume, which ends with the delegation of the desperate Greek leaders visiting the sulking Achilles, turns out to be set much earlier in Homer's narrative:
 They find him, with guitar,
 Singing of Gilgamesh.
 "Take my hands. Here they are."
 You cannot take your eyes away from him.
 His own so bright they slow you down.
 His voice so low, and yet so clear.
 You know that he is dangerous.

Patroclus has yet to die, let alone Hector.

Logue has said that Cold Calls is the penultimate chapter of his epic, and, judging by an interview he gave the London Independent last year, it appears that the last chapter ("this bit isn't in the Iliad at all") will not take readers much closer to the destruction of Priam's noblest son. Instead, he is planning to describe an assault by the Trojans on the Greek camp that will, in the end, decide nothing.

In a way though, perhaps it's fitting that he will leave this ancient, ageless cycle of revenge, glory, bravery, and violence, of Troy, Gilgamesh, and Stalingrad, uncompleted, still alive, still alluring, still with us:
 And now the light of evening has begun
 To shawl across the plain:
 Blue gray, gold gray, blue gold,
 Translucent nothingnesses
 Readying our space,
 Within the deep, unchanging sea of space,
 For Hesper's entrance, and the silver wrap.

 Covered with blood, mostly their own,
 Loyal to death, reckoning to die
 Odysseus, Ajax, Diomed,
 Idomeneo, Nestor, Menelaos
 And the King.

Scribble, scribble, scribble, Mr. Logue.
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Title Annotation:Notebook; Christopher Logue
Author:Stuttaford, Andrew
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Theater review
Date:Dec 1, 2006
Previous Article:Parentis gone loco.
Next Article:Hamilton capitulates.

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