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Cressida, (directed in various versions by Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare), as well as remakes by James Joyce and Derek Walcott. The opening scene of The Cantos (1972; dir. Ezra Pound) is an extended quotation from it (via a Latin translation). Margaret Atwood reimagines it in prose from Penelope’s viewpoint in The Penelopiad. Not to forget several real films, including the recent Troy, starring Brad Pitt. Three more vessels – one a dramatization, one a distillation and one a dissension – have set out on the wine-dark sea in recent years. Does the hero get home in them?

Homer’s Odyssey is a play for voices that takes in most of the significant episodes in the Odyssey. It was commissioned for BBC Radio, and it’s perhaps unfair to review this text as a poem. Still, in the introduction its translator/adaptor/author writes that “it was always in the back of my mind that it should have a further life as a piece of writing.” All right then. Let’s begin at the beginning.


ATHENA

There’s no shame in being human.


ZEUS

They stumble from one tragedy to the next,

never improving, never learning from their mistakes,

then blame us for their frailties and faults.

Their misfortunes are their own!

Our words of warning fall on deaf ears

and they turn a blind eye to our signs.


“Words of warning”, “fall on deaf ears”, “turn a blind eye” are the kind of lexical chunks which enable us to produce and receive language at an adequate rate for everyday spoken and written communication. There’s nothing wrong with these chunks – clichés if you like – as such: they don’t represent decay or laziness in a language, as George Orwell and perennial writers of Letters to the Editor have believed, but rather resources for fluent speech and writing. What they’re not though, is powerful or interesting poetry. Phrasal collage is a typical method in Simon Armitage’s work, and skill is evident in its deployment here: “fall on deaf ears” is paralleled by “turn a blind eye”, “our words of warning” are taken up in “our signs”. “Turn a blind eye” is used in a novel sense to denote not tolerance but self-deception, wilful ignorance, denial. But the lines err on the side of “naturalness” so much that there is only a modicum of heat in the language. Nobody’s going to stop doing their ironing.

Flotsam of this kind – “a crying shame”, “a fighting chance”, “a nightmare vision” to name three of many examples – is washed up all over this text. It gets into the stage directions, which include a “stunned silence”. “From then on / we were marked men, locked on a collision course” might be From Our Own Correspondent. In a work of length some lapses into the less than highly charged are forgivable, even necessary – we can’t be bowled over with powerful, fresh language the whole time. But intensity can be lowered while keeping the language new. In fact, the translator does just that in the next two lines:

When we send eagles

to signal our thoughts in the sky,

what do they do – stand and point and stare,

like… birdwatchers!


That “signal” is absolutely le mot juste. The lines here are simple and direct whilst still manipulating words on a deeper level than just the phrasal.

The “birdwatchers” recur as a witty rhyming of Bronze Age

techniques of prediction with a 20th/21st century hobby, and are the first of a fleet of anachronisms deployed in the text. In his introduction, the translator states:

“…the version presented here hopes never to stray too far from the content, chronology and atmosphere of the original. It is not set in a housing estate in Salford. It does not depict the Achaeans as veterans of the Gulf War or asylum-seekers, though of course we should not be surprised if the Odyssey rings with echoes and resonances of our contemporary world.”


This is true insofar as there is no consistent resituating of the text into the present. But parts of this version – lines, speeches, scenes –
do play out in contemporary settings in terms of their language. The raider of cities and his ship are “pinballed between islands”, and in the fateful Cattle of the Sun episode the crew take a dietary science approach to their predicament: “Protein – that’s what we need to get home”. The whole first scene has the feel of a business meeting, and later Zeus will ask Athena for “a progress report.” The lotus-eating section is configured as an ecstasy trip, the three crew members as lotus addicts, Odysseus by turns a grim-faced drugs cop – “search their pockets for those fatal plants” – and then a hard-nosed parent: “Give me that stuff. Throw it on the floor. All of it.” The action might not be set on a housing estate in Salford, but the dialogue is.

“Echoes and resonances of our contemporary world”: if we take cultural production from other periods to also be part of our knowing, postmodern age, the bell-ringer’s sleeve is being tugged at by some other subgenres distinctly of our time rather than Homer’s. The Cyclops is “Poseidon’s weird son”. Weird like the Weird Sisters? Or weird like a lad with no mates on a housing estate in Salford? I don’t know how the voice of Eurycleia, Odysseus’ nurse, was realized in the radio production, but in the text you can hear a West Country yokel drawl, or perhaps the good-natured rosy-cheeked housemaid of a BBC Dickens adaptation (“I shouldn’t wonder”, “don’t be going to that window again, it’s a chill wind / from the mountain”). The Cyclops speaks in a Gollumesque 3rd-person self-referential voice: “Cyclops does whatever Cyclops pleases”.

Such formulations seem to be intended as a realization of those “echoes and resonances” in our media-driven world. The problem with the method is that it implicitly expresses, in a kind of extended
Thought For The Day, the idea that Hey kids, you know Ancient Greece was actually a lot like now… Well maybe it was in some ways, but in plenty of other ways it probably wasn’t. The Greeks liked a good barbecue too, but conceptualized it as a religious ritual, spilling wine as an offering and deciding what animals’ entrails might be most appropriate to a particular god. Odysseus’ summary slaying of the Slave Girls for disloyalty comes over at least in the standard Rieu translation (1) as a culturally unproblematic act. In Armitage’s version they’re not executed but more or less excised, appearing only briefly when Odysseus threatens Eurycleia with death if she divulges his identity – with a curious toning down in the stage direction: “almost violently.” What’s not violent about a death threat? Part of the interest in reading semantically closer translations such as Rieu’s can be the sense of cultural and historical difference that they convey, an expansion of perception: the Greeks weren’t just civilized, they were also brutal (this, perhaps, a genuine echo and resonance of our contemporary world). In sum then, these tactics don’t, in general, bring Homer’s world into ours, or “retell Homer’s epic” as the jacket sleeve puts it. Instead, they retell our world with an old story, with the Hollywood method of inserting contemporary storylines and dialogues into an exotic or historical setting.

In a recent interview, George Szirtes commented that “Once a poet has been much translated the latest translator can extend the meanings of existing translations by playing, by adapting the original to his or her own idiom.” (2) When Armitage finds a genuinely new idiom, the language is powerful: “I’ll go to Ithaca with a plan… put fuel in his thoughts”, “man has a fistful of sand and treasures every grain”, “Hunger has first call on the brain”, and the Pinteresque “My memory - / it’s like a museum. Infinite rooms, covered in dust.” Or entertaining: “You couldn’t predict your way out of your own hat!” the suitor Eurymachus curses Telemachus’ augur. Or moving: “Let them build me a boat”, Odysseus prays to himself, washed up on the island of the Phaeacians. And the clichés do work in terms of wit when a kind of dramatic sarcasm fills them with life: “Never let it be said that you starved”, Telemachus tells the suitors.

At their best, such extensions of meaning are instructive. Penelope wonders whether Odysseus has abandoned her for a younger woman, Calypso attacks the male/female hypocrisy of the Gods, and Queen Arete, commenting on Odysseus’ long narrative of his voyages, tells Odysseus: “the subject of your stories is your own cleverness”. What is also really brought out is the continual conflict between Odysseus and his crew. In the cattle of the sun episode, Odysseus figures as a Jesus-like figure, putting his disciples – the crew – to the test via temptation. And there’s a fun reworking of Homeric repetition – frequently considered to be a product of the poem’s oral origins – into a kind of Chinese Whispers: in the debate on Olympus, Athena whispers to Zeus that Hermes go to Calypso, which Zeus immediately relays to Hermes.

Where Simon Armitage travels round the whole archipelago, Stuart Montgomery settles for a three-centre holiday.
Islands is a selective remake, half-sample, half-gloss of three episodes from the Odyssey, a little like Christopher Logue’s War Music from the Iliad (3), but with even fewer claims to completeness. Where Armitage hurries us on to the next scene, Montgomery’s Art House camera lingers over the action: epic poetry rewritten not as radio drama but as modernist lyric, involving fragmented interior monologues by the hero of the events. The topic of these tales though is not Odysseus’ ingenuity, but principally his experience of the erotic. The poems are written in a dense free verse, or more accurately the “flexible line” practised by Bunting, whose Briggflatts and Loquitur Montgomery’s Fulcrum Press was first to publish.

The three sequences are quite different in some ways. ‘Sirens’, the most recently written, is the most pared down of them. It’s a psychological exploration of an episode that’s actually no more than a few lines in the Odyssey. The first section reads:

no breeze now

over shallow seas

my men sighting

the island of the sirens


warned them

to bind me fast

feet in the mastbox

arms tied behind


bullets of beeswax

warmed by sword and sun

filled their ears one by one


better deaf than dumbed

by sound

mine stiff with curiosity


The ears are, for obvious reasons, both method and motif in ‘Sirens’: the internal rhymes, cross-stanza echoes and other sound effects in this and other poems embody the songs of the Sirens, “brief but intense songs / mad ramraids of sound” as a later poem details. The faint ghost of a sonnet is visible in the number and arrangement of lines. Bunting is audible: Montgomery’s “ears drum / eyes dim and darken” jam off both “ears err / for fear of spring” (4) and “my ears ring, what I see is hazy” (5).

After the sounds of the sirens, ‘Circe’ begins with the motif of silence.

absolute silence like a ruler

leant over the prow of our black ship

and pulled her into the harbour

where we leapt out on the blinding white

beaches whiter than we knew which drew

our bodies down tired already by the blue sea

we shouted but all sounds died on our lips


This sequence starts as a “straight” retelling of the Circe episode in which the crew are transformed into pigs and then saved by their captain – actually a retelling of a retelling, as in this section of the
Odyssey it’s Odysseus doing the telling. Montgomery’s rendering brings out the drama and tension of the episode, with enjambement and truncated phrasing catching the crew’s euphoria at their metamorphosis from pigs back to men. It then continues as a long reimagining of the year that Odysseus and crew spend with Circe (in Rieu’s prose translation it’s all of a sentence). Here, the sequence morphs into Williams-like mini-shortlined poems, adding in a discourse on language, then sea and swimming, shifting the narrator to the third person. The lyrical self dissolves as the language is reduced and the narration falters, enacting Circe’s second, more subtle ensnarement of Odysseus and the crew.

There’s much to enjoy and admire in the style, which as Steve Spence put it is “spare and sculpted but loaded with sounds and sights and smells and longings.” (6). But it’s at this point that the text throws up uncomfortable questions. To what extent is it replicating the less than emancipatory gender politics of Homer’s poem? The (dissolving) perspective is that of the male hero. The only female character in this episode is figured as a seducer, a trope that runs through all three sequences: it’s not just any old episodes of the
Odyssey that have been picked here.

Pieces of life advice occur intermittently. Embedded in the action and imagery, these have power. In the final sequence, “Calypso”, as Odysseus swims away from the nymph’s island, Athena tells him: “take off the coat of Calypso / things you keep / tethered around your neck / will drown you for sure.” Some seem to be add-ons. The last poem of ‘Sirens’ begins: “when things are bad / you can make life / better or worse”, over-glossing the final lines embodying the same thought in more concrete language: “better bend / with the oars and strain / for sunshine.” Bunting endorsed ‘Circe’ as “a poem, a good one, very much alive and hanging on tight to things and people”,
and Islands as a whole is at its best when it hangs on tight to the Odyssey. It’s then that the echoes and resonances come through best.

Rieu describes Homer in the introduction to his prose translation as that “most impersonal and objective of authors”, and if we play the faithfulness game here, the feel of
Islands is closer to the sense of objectivity – perhaps, to risk an anachronism of my own, Objectivism – of Homer. Through its diction and form Islands is much more a deliberate and justified Othering of the Odyssey – though its language is typically simple and direct, it still feels “different”: the skewering of meat and downing of wine are ritual, not barbecue. The density of language, and the text’s overtly modernist techniques of estrangement, allow the poems to steer between the Scylla of overliteralness and the Charybdis of overassimilation. What we have is not a pseudo-recovery of the original text in English but an authentically new – if at times problematic – creation.

Kelvin Corcoran’s
Helen Mania settles a yet smaller island, still further from “the original” – in this case the back story of the Iliad. It reconfigures Helen’s supposed abduction by Paris as a deliberate act of risk on her part, with Agamemnon capitalizing on this opportunity for political ends. It’s a rewriting and a reinterpretation, if not quite as radical as that of Euripides in his comedy Helen, which Corcoran alludes to. In Euripides, Helen herself doesn’t go anywhere near Troy – Hera created an airy alter ego to take her place, while Helen herself was whisked away to Egypt. Helen Mania is a deal more serious than Euripides though in its intent, and I can’t do better than the poet himself in giving a sense of where the poem is coming from:

“There are two distinct voices… One is Prince Alexandros or Paris I think, running away with Helen, and the other voice is the political fixer for Agamemnon, who is looking for a reason to wage a war, for the rising state of Greece against the East. It’s up to you whether you see historical parallels. There are lots of references to a very particular locality in the Peloponnese the Taygetos mountains run down. According to Homer it’s at Kranai, the isle of Phanon or Marathonisi [where] Helen and Paris spent their first night together. According to my friend Yannis, that’s not so. He tells me that they came past the village we stay in and left the other side of the Taygetos mountains, and he’s even shown me the chariot wheel tracks in the road… And that made me very interested in a different notion of Greek or classical mythology which is a series of civic pride stories, very localized civic pride stories, rather than the huge edifice of public schoolboy German and English classicism of the last and previous century.” (7)


Corcoran combines a subjective, individual voice with other voices to create, if not objectivitiy, a sense of intersubjectivity in the poem. A base form of four tercets is repeated and permutated over ten sections, matching the way that perspectives change in the poem: chiefly Paris and Agamemnon’s spin doctor as Corcoran mentions, but also a narrator visiting the contemporary Greek landscape and Helen in a telegram to ditched husband Menelaus. The trick’s been around since at least
The Wasteland, but here it’s been tightened up to fit absolutely into the material of the poem.

“Desire” is the kind of word in a poem that sends magazine editors skimming to the bottom of the page to check whether the writer thinks poetry ended with Byron, but Corcoran has it in a line both surprising and apt:

desire lifted us like the tide


As in
Homer’s Odyssey, there are anachronisms galore:

Menelaus – Where are your divisions now? Stop.

– Your squad cars and riches? Stop.


We need a name for this war,

economics won’t move our heroes;

plunder is nearer to it but

join our trade war won’t swing it.


…it’s Priam’s turn for regime change.


…see smart bomb snapshots of Trojan bunkers;


She steps forward parting the air

into the live broadcast

wrapped around the world.


Simon Armitage’s anachronisms seem to me to distract, Kelvin Corcoran’s to inform. Why? First of all, there’s the context. Homer’s Odyssey attempts in some sense to be the Odyssey, to retell the tale. Helen Mania, however, is one more text in the long tradition of rewriting the tale, such that it might be inaccurate to call these things anachronisms in the first place. There is a clear, explicit and acknowledged link to the present here, no disingenuous denial of the text’s situatedness in the here and now. No pretence is made of the thing being anything other than a 21st century echo and resonance of Homer; it isn’ trying to claim for itself the cultural capital of somehow being the original while still tugging on the language strings of the present. Then there is the openness. Though the stereotypes of publishing affiliations (Armitage at Faber, Corcoran with Shearsman et al.) might suggest otherwise, it’s actually Corcoran’s insertions of the contemporary that are more widely “accessible”. To understand “smart bomb”, “regime change” for instance, you would need to have heard or seen news reports in English over the last few years, but that is a larger constituency than the 20th/early-21st-century laddish Britain you would need to be familiar with in order to get some of Armitage’s phrasing. And finally, there is a certain seriousness. It’s difficult to disentangle the motives for the use of anachronism – to impress us with the poem’s uptodateness? to make sense of the contemporary world? – but those in Homer’s Odyssey tend towards the former I think, in Helen Mania to the latter.

My favourite anachronism in Homeric reworkings occurs in Logue’s
War Music, a text somewhere between Homer’s Odyssey and Islands in terms of its semantic closeness to the original (in this case the Iliad). The phrase is “bronze flak”. It draws its power from a kind of minimalism, its yoking together of iconic elements from two ages in a pair of monosyllables. And it represents a perception – that the bronze-based warfare of Homer’s and later ages was every bit as characterized by a melee of potential death from all sides. Logue takes the Iliad, a text about war, which is a subject few of his translation’s readers will have experienced firsthand. He uses the alien subject of an old text to say something applicable to a modern subject which is also alien – the real, gory details of war that are omitted from media coverage.

“Art…”, Michael Heller writes, “defamiliarizes by plucking something out of its utilitarian mode of existence — Duchamp's wine racks and urinals, for example — not merely to place it in a category called art (whatever that means) but to refresh it for our senses. We see it again, but out of context and in a strange new light.” (8) In the play of genre, context and expectation, the most powerful moments of these three takes on the Trojan stories are when our and Homer’s age come together. The last section of
Helen Mania, for example, reads:

We ran up the goat tracks, breathless

between spurge and aconite and mallow.


Helen you have undone the world

I taste your looks, touch your colour

you were always there, my radiant lexicon.


It can be read both in the voice of Paris and the voice of a contemporary narrator. For that “strange new light”, Homer remains a “radiant lexicon”.


(1) Homer,
The Odyssey, translated by E.V. Rieu, Penguin Classics.
(2) An Interview with George Szirtes, in Mimesis, Issue 2, Summer 2007.
(3) Christopher Logue,
War Music, An Account of Books 16 to 19 of Homer’s Iliad. See elsewhere on Litter for Gareth Twose’s review of the final section of War Music.
(4) Basil Bunting,
Briggflatts, Part One
(5) Basil Bunting,
2nd Book of Odes, poem 7
(6) http://www.terriblework.co.uk/booksone.htm
(7) From introduction to recording made on 22 August 2005, at Lee Harwood's flat in Brighton, at
http://www.archiveofthenow.com
(8) Michael Heller, “Aspects of Poetics”,
http://www.culturalsociety.org/aspects.html





Copyright © Alistair Noon, 2008