Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
Peter Campion

Logue Generals 

 

All Day Permanent Red by Christopher Logue. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $18.00.


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     Christopher Logue is a knave of the old stripe. His bad behavior in the English army during the Second World War landed him in a military detention camp for sixteen months. As an actor and screen-writer in the sixties and seventies, he aided and abetted the enfant terrible of British movies, Ken Russell. Most recently, Logue insulted both Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth on public radio. I gleaned some of this shocking information from an article by August Kleinzahler in The San Diego Weekly Reader. That piece is worth hunting down; and you can gather even more about Logue’s malefaction from his own memoir, Prince Charming. There you’ll learn about some odious acts the poet committed in the posh water closets of Knightsbridge and Kensington. But you’ll also get a valuable look at the development of an artist.

     Like many mercurial temperaments (think of Christopher Marlowe, for example) Logue does his best work when he has a given structure to push against. No wonder, then, that his first successes were translations of a sort: in the fifties, Logue and his cohorts set poems to jazz. The pieces got some play on the radio, thanks to Donald Carne-Ross at Programme Three of the BBC. That friendship came to bear even finer fruit: Carne-Ross, who now teaches Classics at Boston University, convinced the poet to try his hand at adapting The Iliad. The scholar opened a pathway into the Greek, and for many years now the poet has wrecked brilliant havoc.

     While Logue bases his rewrites on The Iliad, he wildly departs from literal meaning. He’s after enactment, not paraphrase: his willingness to stray from Homer while maintaining the feel of the original is what makes his versions so valuable. These rewrites provide pleasure in and of themselves, and they also show just how adventurous contemporary poetry can be. All Day Permanent Red (the phrase comes from an ad for lipstick) carries the project into its fifth decade.

     To understand how Logue’s extravagant imagination jibes with Homer, you need to know about the heroic simile. These extended comparisons are crucial building blocks of epic verse. Virgil scatters them all over the place. Dante has a gorgeous one in Canto III of the Inferno, where he compares the souls crossing Acheron to leaves falling from autumn branches. While heroic similes immediately invoke the epic tradition, their very conventionality allows the poet to reveal aspects of his or her own time. Poets also use these similes to show just what they themselves can do: the way a jazz musician might play some signature phrase over the old II-V chord change. Logue has mastered this move. Here he provides a sort of doubled heroic simile to describe the onslaught of Greek forces:

   Think of the moment when far from land
   Molested by a mile-a-minute wind
   The ocean starts to roll, then rear, then roar
   Over itself in rank on rank of waves
   Their sides so steep their smoky crests so high
   300, 000 tons of plunging aircraft carrier
   Dare not sport its beam
But Troy, afraid, yet more afraid
Lest any lord of theirs should notice any one of them
Flinching behind his mask
Has no alternative.
   Just as those waves
   Grown closer as they mount the continental shelf
   Lift into breakers scoop the blue and then
   Smother the glistening shingle
Such is the fury of the Greeks
That as the armies joined
No Trojan lord or less can hold his ground, and
   Hapless as plane-crash bodies tossed ashore
   Still belted to their seats
   Are thrust down-slope

     This passage may deliver a certain shock, especially its ending. But I think there’s a more abstract, formal kind of violence at work here. The lines themselves have seismic velocity: this is real free verse, not prose that’s been pulsed in the Cuisinart. Energy also comes from the swift and confident movement through different material, and through the orders of speech that attach to such material. Although the incantatory, “epic” tone dominates the simile, hints of modern military and even oceanographic idioms come flashing through.

      Logue’s talent for detecting the strength and vivacity in different kinds of speech lies at the heart of his achievement. And it's futile to judge this achievement in relation to other translators. In a class on Ancient Greek, Logue would make a naughty boy indeed. Fitzgerald or Lattimore will give you a far better sense of how the original poem develops line by line and scene by scene. But Logue's departures do capture an aspect of Homer that those other two don't: the insouciant jump-cuts from one idiom to the next embody the Homeric violence through torsion of the verse movement itself.

     The reigning idiom throughout the book is a type of movie-speak: reading All Day Permanent Red often feels like standing in the Mojave Desert while some amped and thrilling film director points out what will explode where. From this vantage-point as a kind of rogue general of poetry, Logue has a base from which he can martial all his other modes of speech. Those other idioms depart and return to this base, very much like the vehicles in heroic similes.

     Logue's directorial style of address also establishes a thematic connection between aesthetic creation and the arrogation of power. After all, this poem is about power. At one crucial point, where the second person imperative becomes most explicit and then momentarily relaxes, the reader gets to take the controls:

Drop into it.

Noise so clamorous it sucks.
You rush your pressed-flower hackles out
To the perimeter.
And here it comes:
The unpremeditated joy as you
–The Uzi shuddering warm against your hip
Happy in danger in a dangerous place
Yourself another self you found at Troy –
Squeeze nickel through the rush of Greekoid scum!
Oh wonderful, most wonderful, and then again more wonderful
A bond no word or lack of words can break,
Love above love!

     Although moments like this one convince me that Logue can beat the Jerry Bruckheimers and Ridley Scotts at their own game, there’s often a peculiar subtlety to Logue’s style of presentation. Here, in uncharacteristic pentameters, he describes the Greek forces rising up:

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.

Then of a stadium when many boards are raised
And many faces change to one vast face.
So, where there were so many masks,
Now one Greek mask glittered from strip to ridge.

     The rapid shift from the Venetian blind to the Greeks to the stadium creates a kind of vertigo. And that image of the boards lifted in front of the faces has a strange tribal feeling, a sense of menacing inscrutability.

     These sensations are appropriate to war, though Logue is not merely linking form and content. While plenty of exuberance and terror come with the subjects described, the real significance lies in the action that the poet himself performs, in his rapid-fire presentation of the material he scavenges from various fields of experience. Each new moment holds its provisional place on the page with fierceness and flair, and then gives way to the next moment. And if this verse movement suggests the speed and thrust of battle, that’s because Logue has transfigured the jagged machinations of warfare and turned them into artwork.


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