POETRY: Greek gods and facials

Classics reinvented: William Scammell reviews Christopher Logue's Iliad -based The Husbands, and, opposite, new poets borrow from Ovid
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The Independent Culture
"GREEK, and as naked as God, naked as bride and groom, / Exulting for battle!" Christopher Logue's biggest problem in The Husbands (Faber £6.99), the third instalment of his free translation of the Iliad, is how to make war palatable to a pacific readership - make heroes heroic, beauties beautiful, gods awesome. His solution is to keep the patriotic gore to a minimum, making full use of cinematic collages and cutaways, postmodern overdubs and a mordant wit to concentrate our attention on the exc iting storyline.

The husbands in question are Paris and Menelaos (as Logue spells it), contending for Helen, the face that launched our most famous literary war. Trojan Hector suggests single combat between himself and any Greek to decide the outcome of the war and Helen's future. Wily Odysseus ("once it passed his teeth, his voice possessed/ Two powers: to charm, to change") counterproposes a fight between Paris and Menelaos, since they are the belligerent parties, to be followed by a comprehensive peace.

The gods aren't having any of that, in particular the female ones, who hurry off to Zeus squabbling for his attention and favours. We can construe them as gods pure and simple, who like us or not, as the fancy takes them, or as a dramatisation of our owninterior life, cutting through reason's flim-flam with primordial lusts and imperatives. The upshot is that bowman Pandar treacherously shoots Menelaos and all hell breaks loose, leaving us where we began - poised for all-out war.

The set-pieces consist of close-ups of the protagonists, where Logue riffs on those famous Homeric similes: Napoleon's Murat had 50 hats And 50 plumes each 50 inches high And 50 uniforms and many more Than 50 pots of facial mayonnaise Appropriate to a man with tender skin; He also had 10,000 cavalry, Split-second timing, and contempt for death.

So Providence - had he been born Later and lowlier - might well have cast Prince Paris.

The cliches of line seven are worrying, but that "facial mayonnaise" is as memorable as it is appropriate. So is the leap forward to the vanity and brilliance of the Napoleonic Rommel. There are times when these tactics seem to be on the verge of video games, but Logue's risk-taking yields many fine moments and keeps us glued to the twists and turns of the action, public and private.

Courage, beauty, duty are mostly handled with a long pair of tongs now-adays, "concepts" for the dissection of. Logue's Homer - or Homer's Logue, as the blurb wryly puts it - takes them on without benefit of quotation marks, though of course there is irony in his anachronisms and modernities.

The beat is largely iambic, broken up by stage directions and dozens of effective registers, somewhere between prose and poetry. In the past I've had my doubts about this particular aestheticisation of "war music" but the inventiveness and readability

of The Husbands is a powerful charm. "Like dancers on a note, the shields divide" and we are whisked past Greeklessness into something like understanding.