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Books discussed in this review:

WAR MUSIC, An Account of Books 16 to 19 of Homer’s ILIAD, Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York, 1987. KINGS, An Account of Books 1 and 2 of Homer’s ILIAD, Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York, 1991. THE HUSBANDS, An Account of Books 3 and 4 of Homer’s ILIAD, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1995. THE HUSBANDS, Faber and Faber, London, 1994 .


Christopher Logue’s growing Account of THE ILIAD, his English re-making of the Homeric poem, was thrilling in its first two parts, WAR MUSIC and KINGS. If you knew Homer, you often gasped in admiration at the way Logue cut and fit the original, then made up new parts, to compose a work that stood on its legs in English yet rightly evoked its source. If you didn’t know your Homer, the excitement came from the energy and coherence of Logue’s version, and from the sound of it. These hundreds of lines were meant to be performed, would have been gorgeous to hear. You looked forward to the third volume.

And when it came, you were perplexed. It was called THE HUSBANDS, and you couldn’t figure out what was going on in it. You thought Logue preferred, had mastered, a narrative style of inner calm, clarity of gaze, sequence. You had the sense that a single consciousness was following the action, was on top of it, making hip, intelligent, even inspired similes, yet standing where you’d be, among the less with your eye on the lords. It, that consciousness, knew the lords, their speech, love of fame and honor, love of war which made those prizes available; yet it knew the fighters also, their longing for home, how they were suckers for demagogues. It saw everything, even the Gods in their Elizabethan bustle and arrogance (WAR MUSIC) and their Edwardian spite (KINGS). Reading, you felt an almost physical leap of Imagination into the fervor of war. You felt as you do before the Elgin Marbles: your mind clear as water.

THE HUSBANDS works differently. It opens with a shout of soldiers; cuts (back in time) to the handing over of Helen to Menelaos; fast-forwards (in Eternity!) to breakfast in Heaven; and comes to rest on a beautiful, steady image of flowing tide, simile for the Greek army spreading across the plain before Troy. Four beginnings in sixteen lines. This is viscerally sickening, even on rereading, because (you feel this), it’s dis-ordered, de-formed. Not that war isn’t disordering and deforming: but that you feel in these lines that something else has been deformed. Logue is usually, rightly, praised for moving the action with cinematic speed, his equivalent of Homeric narrative devices. He’s often successful, even brilliantly so; though, equally, there are many lines in which he achieves effects that movies probably can’t deliver. But if THE HUSBANDS moves in disjointed episodes (it’s also the most expository of the books so far), it works less like cinema and more like a movie that might as well have been directed by Quentin Tarantino. The brutality of the poem’s opening montage -- image, cut, image, cut, cut, cut -- shocks you. The energy that should have been released by the language comes instead from mere sensation. It’s not what you’ve expected, and you react: A mind, consciousness, has been chopped to bits and tossed in your face. Something in this technique is cruel, even stupidly cruel, as in the movies.

If cinema is the trope of narration in Logue’s poem -- the volumes rely on each other and might be counted as parts of a whole -- then the poem lives (of course) in a tricky environment. If Logue’s wonderful Account re-interprets Homer “for our time,” then our time is marked not only as the bloody, Leninist century it’s been, and to which his version of the poem of force, in Simone Weil’s perfect phrase, is a sharp reply; but also by the Hollywoodization of -- at least -- popular culture. Its influence is everywhere, not least in publishing, not least among writers, even poets. It contaminates readers. There are so many bad books, forced plot-lines, blank-eyed inward-turned poems, movie-land action effects, that the contamination puts us all -- readers, writers -- at (temporary?) risk. Logue’s poetic accomplishment is large, and his publishers are distinguished; and suggesting they’ve been influenced by coarser tastes isn’t my game. Rather, as a reader I’ve been trying to figure out what’s not right with this book, what gets between me and it. I want to try to recognize its intention and find out where its energy comes from.


THE HUSBANDS is based on Books 3 and 4 of THE ILIAD, in which “[d]received by God, and abandoned by Achilles, Agamemnon leads the Greeks across the plains for an assault on Troy.” The book opens this way:

“A drink! A toast! oooTo those who must die.

o“On my land, before my sons,
Do you accept this womb, my daughter, Helen, as your wife?”
“I do.”
“Her young shall be your own?”
“They shall.”
“You will assume her gold?”
“I will.”
“Go. You are his. Obey him. And farewell.”

ooBreakfast in Heaven.
Ambrosia alba wreathed with whispering beads.
o“In the Beginning there was no Beginning,
And in the End, no End,” sing the Nine to the Lord.
And Hera’s eyebrows posit: “Now?”
And now Athene goes.

Think of those fields of light that sometimes sheet
Low tide sands, and of the panes of such a tide
When, carrying the sky, they start to flow
Everywhere, and then across themselves:
Likewise the Greek bronze streaming out at speed,
Glinting among the orchards and the groves,
And then across the plain -- dust, grass, no grass,
Its long low swells and falls -- all warwear pearl,
Blue Heaven above, Mt Ida’s snow behind, Troy inbetween.

Line sixteen (“Think of those fields of light that sometimes sheet”) is where the skittering energy comes to ground. This feels like the true opening of the book and it is, in the English edition. Not an uncommon event: the two editions, American and English, of THE HUSBANDS are notably different. For convenience I’ll call them editions A and E. Edition E continues:

And what pleasure it was to be there! To be one of that host!
Greek, and as naked as God, naked as bride and groom,
Exulting for battle! lords shouting the beat out
oo'One --’
Keen for a kill
As our glittering width and our masks that glittered
Came over the last row of the plain ooand


(As your heart skips a beat)
ooSee the Wall.

The Wall is the rampart of Troy, “majestic on its eminence.” The poet’s eye has taken us in a smooth, unbroken survey of all it beholds from sea-edge to the gate of the besieged city, pictured as a fortified town in some far corner of the wild East, near the Dnepr perhaps, where

Hector’s moon-horned, shouting dukes
Burst from the tunnels, down the counterslope,
And shout, shout, shout, smashed shouted shout
Backward and forth across the sky,
While pace on pace the Greeks came down
With blank, unyielding imperturbability.

Greeks come face to face with Trojans. Agamemnon parleys with the massive Hector. The rhythm and energy of five-beat lines have carried us inexorably to this meeting of the lords of war, to wily Odysseus’ little diversion, and toward the longed-for, truce-braced single combat between Helen’s two husbands, Menelaos and Paris. In the elegant economy of this long opening passage, the energy of the cool, silent Greeks has been met and exactly balanced -- a stand-off -- by the energy of untrustworthy, voluptuous, ancient Troy. Agreement is made; weapons are laid down.

The scene shifts. Hera and Athene, no friends of Paris, will not stomach the proposed peace-through-combat. They hurry off to make trouble. Next, we are shown Helen in her atelier. Her women groom her to be displayed before the assembled hosts as property and prize, and we learn, sub rosa, how much she and Paris are hated. Here Logue devises a sly juxtaposition of warring passions portrayed via a piece of embroidery: “The atelier. On Helen’s frame/‘She will be fought for. In an hour....’/Achilles Reaches Troy, a nine-year work....” A witty invention, a needle-dart of ridicule. In Homer, Helen’s tapestry is a diorama of the war. But -- implies this new one -- who is more unlike Paris than Achilles?

He has the kind of look that perfect health,
Astonishing, coordinated strength,
Pluperfect sight, magnificence at speed, a mind
Centered on battle, and a fearless heart display
When found in congruence.

(But Achilles sulks in his tent, we know, refusing combat on the Greek side because greedy Agamemnon’s insulted his honor. And he doesn’t love women; they’re only property, the spoils of war. He is best among the Greek lord-warriors, themselves “Excellent killers of men.”)

End of the first act.

This section, fifteen pages of coherence in edition E, is lovable. It’s made with the clarity of a single impulse, the poet’s mind in active contemplation, his assured recitation. “Greek, and as naked as God, naked as bride and groom,/Exulting for battle!” is even kind of sexy. It’s also a little staid. I’m not disturbed by it, as I was reading edition A. I don’t like feeling this, or thinking it, but must admit: the disordered American version carries a little charge, puts small electric smacks on the skin. Where do they come from? Why do I like them? I don’t like them. It was the Tarantino effect that got me.


In the second part, called “Music,” THE HUSBANDS moves from balance to imbalance, from truce to treachery. The Gods pull levers of energy. Some lean toward Troy, others toward Greece; or, micromanaging, a Goddess now loves Troy, now Greece, depending on where Divine interest is best served. Nine years of war are coming to a close. Everyone has suffered. Ancient, noble Priam, king of Troy (the only Trojan the Greeks trust), is going to sacrifice to the Gods in the name of all, to seal the truce. Anticlimax. The Gods won’t have it. They like drama, they like pulling their stage-levers. That’s one source of (narrative) energy in the poem: their plotting.

Before the armies meet, Helen is to be displayed before Priam’s court. This is Troy: exotic, barbaric, charged with erotic energy. Her attendant whispers:

“You carry Aphrodité in your breast.
Pull down your dress and let your body say
Is this not worth a ten-year war?...”

Logue makes a marvelous transference, a metamorphosis, when -- to instruct Helen in “kingly” behavior before this court -- he has Aphrodité incarnate in old, wrinkled Teethee, Helen’s slave. He is very good at making the Gods appear; he knows how it’s done, in every variant. Here, the voice of the nattering old woman goes from “squeaky” to “clear,” and Helen’s attendant, reporting to us, confides: “I sensed we were in trouble. Tu was green. At the same time/I wanted to be kissed and licked all over./This is how Aphrodité sounds when she commands our flesh....”/ It is a delicious image in a terrifying passage. You feel some of the shockwaves Aphrodité sets off when she enters a room.

As Priam readies the sacrifice, Poseidon wants God, his Brother, to hurt the Greeks for mucking up his favorite bay. Hera and Athene want God to help the Greeks; they’ve never forgiven Paris for his sexual insult. No one wants a truce. Athene (“Magnifica” in edition E, “Choo-Choo” in edition A) is cute -- of all things -- when she cajoles her father. Hera, though, is the better bargainer; she’ll give any three Greek cities to be destroyed in return for the sack of Troy. God agrees, with reservations, then decrees that, after this, NO GODS CAN INTERVENE ANYMORE. Men will have to fight their own war. He allows Athene to implant treachery in a patriotic Trojan, and the truce is unmade.

Menelaos and Paris have met in combat; Paris has fled; the Greeks appear to have won. Not quite, not yet: the Trojan, Pandar, fits an arrow to his bow and (Athene turns it downward) smacks Helen’s remaining husband -- this is a breathtaking invention -- in the “pubic mound.” The arrow must be extracted: “Makon will use his teeth his neck to draw/The head out of the gristle by its stump.” Agamemon, shaken, murmurs: “(my God, that man takes pain,/As well as women do)....”

Logue uses vivid images of feminine power; interestingly, they appear strongest as God allows Heaven its last bit of intervention. Paris’ cowardice and the Trojan arrow crank up the war again. Now it’s left in the hands of men, mortals, who are going to die like flies. The book ends on a plaintive, Arnoldian note, ignorant armies clashing by night.


I hunted up the English edition after reading in passing that lines had been cut for American publication.

It’s true: many lines have been cut from the American version, yet if I prefer the beautiful first section (up to “Music”) of edition E, I’m not certain that some of the later changes aren’t better for the poem.

THE HUSBANDS is important because you -- almost -- see (and so, might feel) why this war began. No matter what the lords of Greece say about why they’ve thrown in their lot with Agamemnon and Menelaos, this war’s fought because of beauty. Real (not commercial, Hollywood) beauty, god-owned and -given: Aphrodité’s, Helen’s, Paris’. It’s not a force on the soul that the Greeks (read also, Anglo-Saxons) can comprehend. They get it only by analogy: honor, fame, hurt male pride. It’s an interesting question: is this book essentially undramatic -- expository; with little agon -- because beauty is so difficult to represent? Particularly in a poem that’s been so visual, audible, nearly tactile about war as Logue’s Account has been. How can we see Helen? She’s said to be the visible representative of Aphrodité on earth. How can we comprehend her effect on humans?

Nonetheless, beauty pulled the lever that started the war. Helen left Menelaos and went to Troy with Paris (“the man of my dreams”):

Me, nude on the rug, you, little big girl,
Still with one thing on: 'Shall I be naked too?' you said,
And then: 'Watch me get rid of it!' and threw it off,
And then yourself into my arms,
Into my arms the world all gone,
And the sun rose early to see us.

Not in edition A, which is too bad: necessary information is unavailable. Even so, these lines, too, are a bit staid. Paris was stronger, earlier, on the plain where the armies faced each other, when clever Odysseus turned Agamemnon’s offer of truce into the husbands’ duel. Languorous, soon to be proven a coward (that is, protected by the Goddess of Love), the armored Paris drawls to Hector, his massive brother:

“I take no credit for my beauty or its power.
God gives to please Himself....
Not to have fallen in with Helen
Would have been free, original, and wrong.”
He is, in his way, a conventional man.

Before her two husbands’ combat, Helen is to be exposed before Priam’s court. In edition E, there is a talky passage, in which lesser characters tell about Helen’s glamorous effect on the Trojans, their heart-felt admiration of her beauty and their desire to see her go back to Greece. Helen, pitying herself, coyly asks forgiveness. These lines have been cut from edition A, losing more information, and losing Helen herself as a speaking creature. But they have been replaced by, I think, a brilliant evocation of her effect on men. This verse condenses what is scattered and dulled by surrounding speech. It comes as close as we get to what this book wants to do: convey -- with as much affect as it’s done for masculine war-violence -- the engorging effect of sexuality, especially feminine sexuality, and the human erotics of god-given beauty.

ooThen 50,000 faces turn, and tilt,
And sad to sight, the colour of the plain;
and Fate, called love, possessed them.
ooStill as it was, the moment grew more still,
As softly, as on a holiday, alone,
When seaside zephyrs stir a consecrated grove,
Parting their lips, as one, stressing each syllable
The thousands said:
oo“Ou mem'me'sis...”

oo“Ou mem'me'sis...”

ooThis boy who came from Corinth
Where the water is like wine;
“Ou mem'me'sis...”
This man from Abigozor on the Bosphorous;
And this unlucky nobody from Gla.

Here is where the true energy of THE HUSBANDS erupts. Ou mem'me'sis! It ought to have infused the book, as war-energy charges the rest of the poem. In this verse is the erotics of war, as -- if -- poetry can evoke it.


How do you recognize a poem’s intention? Poets have long been known to publish variations of a work, even change it at the root; Auden and Marianne Moore come to mind. Your job as reader is to observe closely and, if questions come up, see if you can answer them in the “spirit of the poem,” even though you live in the world. In that world THE HUSBANDS is, you have to think, a work still forming. It’s distracted by possibilities, the movie-cuts, which don’t have any necessary order. It knows men at war, and war-love, but its erotic energy -- its knowledge of carnal beauty and the power of beauty -- hasn’t been released yet into the poem’s true shape. The two editions don’t quite make a whole. But Logue isn’t finished with them, and he knows -- you sense; you see the signs -- what the erotic means. It’s enticing to wonder what he’s going to do about it.


©1997, Archipelago




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