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Christopher Logue
All Day Permanent Red
Faber (2003), £8.99
ISBN 05712116862



In a letter to W.H.D. Rouse, then translating the Odyssey, Ezra Pound wrote:

Para thina poluphoisboio thalasses: the turn of the wave and the scutter of receding pebbles.
Years' work to get to that.
Pound tried, he says, to approximate it in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, with:
Audition of the phantasmal sea-surge

which is totally different, and a different movement of the water, and inferior.
And in a recent issue of Areté, Christopher Logue speaks of
Two hexameters just describing the movement of water. When you hear someone like Jasper [Griffin] recreate it for you — 'bbl,bbbl' — it's absolutely wonderful.
The enraptured tone is significant — it is in the sound, the rhythm of the language that poetry's force resides, and these are the very qualities that are the least translatable. Pound's letter to Rouse is dated 23rd May 1935. Twenty years earlier he had cut the Gordian knot, in section VI of his Moeurs Contemporaines: 'he lies by the poluphloisboius sea-coast'. The word was still haunting him in the forties, cropping up in the first of the Pisan Cantos. While we can acknowledge the allusion as a typical Modernist strategy, it's also possible to see such direct transliteration as tantamount to an admission of failure, or at least recognition of the impossibility of ever carrying across the musical element of one language to another.

Pound's dissection of poetic practice into the trinity of Melopoeia, Phanopoeia and Logopoeia now looks dated, but it gave him a useful benchmark when defining what is and what is not translatable. Melopoeia, which bears upon the musical properties of language, is, as Pound said, 'practically impossible' to translate, though it 'can be appreciated by a foreigner [...] even though he be ignorant of the language in which the poem is written.' Given the seductive musical properties of the phrase quoted in Poundís letter (Ė literally 'beside the loud-murmuring sea'), it may be interesting to see how various translators have dealt with it (bearing in mind the fact that the impulse to translate, and structure into which the translator embeds his interpretation, derive from motives which vary from case to case).

Chapman has 'the sea-beat shore'; Dryden in his unfinished Ilias 'along the hoarse-resounding shore'; Pope offers 'along the Shore'. There is a marked paucity of description in these three examples; in Chapman's translation, filtered through the twin lenses of humanism and Hellenism, aural fidelity is drowned out in the general din of the brave new world; Pope, heir to Dryden's proto-Augustan tidiness, had little scope in his neat couplets for expansive word-play.

Coming to the twentieth century, Lattimore's translation, a university favourite, provides 'beside the murmuring sea beach', a curious pleonasm, which I can only imagine was thought justified by the final word's onomatopoeic effect. More latitude is assumed by Robert Fagles: 'down the shore / where the battle lines of breakers crash and drag.' Here the implications of the word , 'loud-murmuring', are expanded into a vignette which acts as a kind of explication of the original conception; there is a pleasing push-pull rhythm to the line, which combines with the onomatopoeia to present a fairly convincing image. In all the excitement, though, the sound-sense of is dimmed.

Christopher Logue (who, it should be said, makes no claims for War Music as a translation) has:
Beside the ocean's high-browed pounders as they stoop
And seethe, smothering the skittish shingle
Logue is alone in the attempt to reproduce the gurgling, percussive tone of . Characteristically, he has picked one detail from its surrounding circumstances, and used it as a starting point, a flint from which to strike his own poetry. True, it is uneconomical in comparison with the original, but it is a question of priorities. Chapman, who takes little notice of this phrase in his translation, will frequently expand other phrases by as much as five lines: not so much Logopoeia as logorrhoea.

The above-quoted lines are taken from Kings, Logue's account of the Iliad's first two books. They exhibit a (relative) fidelity to their source which is all but absent from All Day Permanent Red, subtitled: 'The first battle scenes of Homer's Iliad rewritten / PART ONE'. The welter of death, screamed threats, dust and gore which flows through this section of Homer's epic, is used as a springboard for Logue's own violent imagination, which takes the form of a series of snapshots: the battle scenes from three books of the original are condensed into under 40 pages.

Logue uses the occasion to present us with a wider conception of battle than is often present in the Iliad. 'The Old Masters,' said Auden, 'understood [suffering's] human position; how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.' Logue understands this too, and halfway through the carnage places this tiny vignette:
    Dustlight. Far off
A woman with an infant on her back
Is picking fruit.
The effect of this purely visual interlude is to create a brief moment of silence at the centre of the battle, the eye at the centre of a hurricane; (a few pages on, the sound of fighting is described as '[n]oise so clamorous it sucks'). Those three lines form a compressed miniature, not unlike the poems of the Imagist movement Pound initiated then distanced himself from. Indeed Logue, in his paratactic layering of images, dialogue and allusion owes a great deal to the arch modernist. 'Surprise. Desert turmoil. Sea sun' is a line from Pound's 'South-folk in Cold Country', but would not sound out of place in All Day Permanent Red.

The irony Homer exhibits when dealing with Hector is faithfully transferred to this redaction, and is evident from the first page:
   Hector emerges and commits the Ilian host
Their coffin-topped rhinoceros and oxhide shields
Packing the counter-slope
where the obvious irony of 'coffin-topped' is given a more subtle shading by the derivation of 'commits' — not only does Hector pledge his soldiers to the grave, he etymologically joins them in their armour-plated necropolis. Later in the book, he gives a rallying speech to the troops, crying 'The victory is God's!' — this solitary phrase is echoed by his followers, gaining ironic weight with each repetition.

Logue's method is often compared with that of the cinema, and if the books of the nineties, Kings and The Husbands, were a mixture of Tarkovsky and David Lean, the latest instalment is a no-holds-barred Jerry Bruckheimer production. Armour and weapons are dwelt on with pornographic attention; wounds are graphic and thrilling. Pyrotechnical close-ups are scattered throughout: 'Sparks from the bronze. Lit splinters from the poles.' Buddies are separated, only to be reunited, or for one of them to see his partner slaughtered in front of him. And of course there is the Dolby surround-sound of lines like:
              when a lull comes — they do —
You hear the whole ridge coughing
   The armies hum
As power-station outflow cables do
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 getting to its feet
No scalpel can divide poetry into an analysable trinity. For all Poundís iconoclastic posturing (much of which has been retrospectively attributed to him by others), he was at the start of his career every bit the late-Victorian / Edwardian Romantic, as Donald Davie has shown. Bearing this in mind, it becomes clear why the concept of melopoeia looks curiously faded; one thinks of De La Mare, or some of the more precious poems of Joyce. It belongs to the oneiric world of symbolism, of the quixotic search for 'pure' sound. The passages quoted above, by contrast, exemplify a sonic potential beyond the ken of those Wallace Stevens called 'the bawds of euphony'. Sound is used here, not to lull the listener into some dream-world where images drift in white mist, but as the device by which Logue draws the reader into the action, bringing his imagined world to life, and making his instalments of Homer one of the few events in poetry publishing worth our fervent anticipation.


© Signals 2004