Book VII: Redaction
Horace there by Homer stands,
Plato stands below,
And here is Tully’s open page.
How many years ago
Where you and I unlettered lads
Mad as the mist and snow?
We know that Homer’s Iliad is a redaction.
Under the darkening rooftree of the mind,
Twice-notched, figured with cave runes,
Generations of eyes and blistered hands
Labor over lines. In the mouth,
A faint metallic tang, iridescent
As the wings of the emperor dragonfly
Great Achilles pinched out of the air
And gnashed down. Lines of Yeats,
Of James Wright of Martins Ferry Ohio,
Lines of Catullus that once drowned my heart,
Terza Rima of Dante, Villon’s welts,
And the breathless cosmic strophes of Neruda.
Lines braised on a jewel-encrusted page,
Or zigzagging like mad Odysseus’ plough.
Numbers metastasizing from my list,
Spiraling down into oblique
Rhymes of cereal boxes and scripture
Of Bloomingdales, treacly cellophane
And Louisville Sluggers branded Mantle
In burnt umber, and the make-believe
Vapor trail from my father’s paper planes.
The mind stays cowled under the moon.
The tongue is laden with metallic wings
That can’t be swallowed, or if swallowed
Can’t be sung. This is how it is
Without the child rocking in the house
Of his own making: sharp-edged verbs
Piercing bronze syntax, each fresh
Enjambment spurting blood, countless names
Striving under the tireless sun, foot
To spondee foot, unwilling to yield.
And this is how it must have been the morning
After the night of the burning naked girl
When Homer, dazed with longing and lost love,
Clawed open the package and his house
Went silent and his marble eyes
Swam open on a strange horizon.
The alphabet. Awkward at first—
Stuttering so the stylus could keep up.
The process—‘transcription’ the manual called it—
Taxed but soothed too—nothing like
Entrancement when each utterance
Dervished through his rocking torso.
No rapture with the alphabet.
His loins stayed cool, his mouth moist.
Triangles, rhomboids, circles and half-circles
Hardened into stanzas.
At last, he stepped back from the workbench
And squinted at the scarred, translucent scroll.
He’d never seen the Iliad.
Never realized its nuance and dimension.
Till now his version changed with every stage.
At palaces he trumpeted Agamemnon,
At sports events it was Achilles,
Weddings, Hector and Andromache,
At the tittie bars the Ares bondage scene.
He’d never made it through in a single go—
That would take weeks and zombie the audience.
He’d never bothered with a blueprint.
Sure he eavesdropped on scholiastic gabble—
Great gas to hear the junior geezers fret
About interpolations and mixed dialects.
Did the Iliad portray a bronze age—or iron?
Did ‘hearing voices’ mean the primitive
Corpus callosum failed as of yet to knit
Hemispheres of the pre-lapsarian brain?
Did Achilles suffer PTSD?
Did rhapsodes remember or forget?
But the alphabet changed his mind.
No improv, no entrancement.
It was hardly verse-making at all.
An encryption, a visual echo.
Scrabbling letters Homer saw what counted
Wasn’t the chant, the many-minded voice,
Not the rocking or apotheosi,
It was triumph and murder—acts of mortal men.
No message from another world—not now,
Not even a replica of this one,
With all its tedium and ambiguity.
Instead, a nape-tingling shoot-em-up,
“The world’s greatest war novel.”
With this newfangled Phoenician toy
Homer could give them that.
The heroes too were cast in different light.
When he chanted they transmogrified
Into upturned faces from his audience.
There were a thousand Agamemnons,
A thousand Hectors and Diomedes.
But the alphabet pinned them down.
Odysseus was blunt-nosed with gray eyes
And a livid scar down his bowed leg.
Agamemnon was slim-hipped and hollow-cheeked.
Achilles’ face was hooded; waves of rage
Emanated from his inscrutable brow.
The alphabet’s cursives and declensions,
Its relentless absolutes and boundaries,
Its need to pluck each wave from the hissing surf,
So fixed Homer’s eyes and fingers,
The poem’s action veiled and he viewed the war
From a great distance. How terrible it had been,
He saw now—singing viscera,
Ripped sinew and spurted black blood,
Seeing darkness flood dying eyes—
Terrible to sing a hero’s death.
When deadly Diomedes hurled his spear,
And Homer’s hoarse tremulo guided it
Straight between the eyes to Pandarus’ nose,
The poet himself felt the tearing point
Tasted iron blood between his teeth.
The tireless bronze sliced the poet’s tongue
At the root, coming out the jaw.
Homer fell from Pandarus’ chariot,
The hero-poet’s armor rattling.
When Idomeneus’ pitiless bronze struck
Erymas in his mouth—the divine utterance
Croaked into a shriek, piercing
The blanched skull where song seeded.
The death cloud enveloping Erymas
Closed too on the rocking, chanting bard.
How exhausting. Homer could do
One or at most two death scenes a night.
But the alphabet deadened pain and salved horror.
Carving the scenes of mayhem into code,
The poet felt a potent tingling,
His cheeks flushed as if he’d just consumed
A skin of unmixed poppy-scented wine.
Like Priam in the teichoskopia,
Homer surveyed the ornamental gore,
Far from the slaughter that had soaked his chant
And almost ruined his Osgood-Schlattered knees.
This rush that left in the belly an untouched jewel—
This must be what the sophists called ‘catharsis.’
With rising excitement Homer realized
His audience would die for this catharsis.
They adored blood, loved the clash of war.
They could never get enough of his shield rattling.
Now with grisly death so telescoped,
The body-count could spike considerably.
Homer felt the gnomon’s shadow lengthen.
He heard seconds dripping through the water clock.
Months passed. His beard and hair matted.
Still he bent over the alphabet,
Each morning digging deeper into the text.
Now eternity was parceled out in clauses,
Instead of brightening the rim of each instant.
Rocking and chanting he had fed the voice
And the voice had fed the utterance.
But now he could re-read and control pace,
Compare, point, pause, revise.
Soon he knew what had to go.
Without the antics, bells and feathers,
Slapstick was dull. The aegis too:
One thing to chant the holy words,
Another to paint them obscene on a scroll.
Still, without their presence radiating
Like a monstrance to display the underlying
Likeness of all things, the Iliad
Would clod-hop like that redneck Hesiod.
So in place of the holy aegis Homer invoked
The wood-nymph Simile to flit between
The eye and page. The goddess touched
His hand and his wrist flicked suspense
In place of intense, sight for insight.
In his silent office between moon and cup,
Homer’s mind and eyes sharpened.
He bent close to the bleached parchment
And fancied he saw emerging from beneath
Translucent veins, arabesques and runes—
What the manual had promised: subtext.
Events subtext revealed weren’t fated.
They were arranged—arising from the text.
One episode in particular enthralled.
A moment half-forgotten in the tenth year,
After Apollo’s plague: Achilles’ shame.
Reading and re-reading the scenes following,
The threads he first dismissed as motes of moonlight
Began to coalesce; the skein coiled.
Agamemnon’s pride ignites Achilles’ rage,
Swelling the high king’s gall, and framing the duel
(Which he’d always played with fork and sausage)
Between Menelaus and Paris, which leads to
Hector’s slagging his brother, which reflects
On the braggadocious Greeks. Enter
Diomedes—a knot of skirmishes—
Back and forth doubling the movement
That preceded it and seeming
To culminate with the anti-climactic
Glaucus duel. Homer guffawed recalling
The day he’d won the duel’s rights
Dicing with an addled Corinthian bard.
A gorgeous set piece in the northern mode—
Paired patrilineal blandishments,
Comic armor-exchange and more high-jinks—
Deus ex machina
To save the son of Aphrodite—poof.
Even though it came from a different era
(He never updated lingo or weaponry)
It fit—presaging impending dark—
Hector’s rush to the ships that sets up
Yet another confab. Then what alphabet
Manual section 18C called ‘paradox’:
Odysseus supplicates Achilles
Fearing Hector—who kills Patroclus,
Murdering Achilles’ soul and ensuring his
(Hector’s) own death, and Achilles’
At the hands of the weakest figure in the poem.
The Iliad wasn’t sacred as it sounded,
It was engineered, symmetrical.
The gods were superfluous—a divine machine.
Yes, there was poetry throughout—
Verses descended directly from the voice:
A day of dappled seaborne clouds, or
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Or Heart’s charity’s hearth’s fire,
Hundreds of lines and images unsullied
From the prime source searing the mind
And leaving the faintest luminescence.
Who knew what future bards might glean such jewels.
But all that would have to go,
Along with Odysseus riddling sphinxes,
Agamemnon buying winds with his daughter’s life,
Or his favorite: Thersites
Sailing in a masted penteconter
Away from Troy to distant Ethiopia.
All these scenes and poetry took place
Before Achilles chucks it in year ten.
Spectacle yes, and they delved mysteries
And revealed the character of gods and men.
But his audience cared mostly about plot.
And plot could be configured to begin
In the tenth year with Achilles’ shame.
Homer could cut the rest: ‘redaction.’
Better, he’d leave them hanging—wanting more—
By cropping the poem to end with a funeral pyre—
‘Foreshadowing’ as the manual urged.
But for all the power of the alphabet
Spread under his hand in his silent office,
Homer couldn’t swallow all the verse.
It took three thousand years to finally cleanse
The embellishments which were meant only to please the ear—stock epithets and recurring phrases where the meaning is of no account.
Though W.H.D. Rouse did concede
To leave in the muse, for the sake of the brand name.
Philip Brady‘s newest book is To Banquet with the Ethiopians: a memoir of life before the alphabet (Broadstone Books, forthcoming 2015.) More information about To Banquet with the Ethiopians, including video clips, can be found here. He is the author of three collections of poetry, Fathom, Weal (winner of the Snyder Prize from Ashland Poetry Press) and Forged Correspondences, chosen for Ploughshares’ “Editors’ Shelf.” His collection of essays, By Heart: Reflections of a Rust-Belt Bard, was ForeWord Gold Medalist, 2008. A memoir, To Prove My Blood: A Tale of Emigrations & The Afterlife, was published by Ashland Poetry Press in 2003. He edited Poems & Their Making (Bucknell University Press, forthcoming 2014) and co‑edited, with James F.Carens, Critical Essays on Joyce’s Portrait. His work has received the Ohioana Poetry Award, five Ohio Arts Council Individual Artists Fellowships, residencies at Yaddo and the Headlands Center, and a Thayer Fellowship. He is Executive Director of Etruscan Press and the Youngstown State University Poetry Center. For kicks, he plays in the New-Celtic band, Brady’s Leap. For more information, visit www.philipbrady.com.