The Australian poet of absences and silences reimagines the terror and exhilaration of the Trojan War.
Malouf (The Complete Stories, 2007, etc.) opens on a characteristically quiet note as he looks back more than 3,000 years to the plains of Scamander. A man stands on the shore, his ear cocked, listening for what we might imagine to be the whispering spirit of his mother. “The man is a fighter,” writes Malouf, “but when he is not fighting he is a farmer, earth is his element.” It is the job of Achilles to put other men into the earth, many of them, as he takes his part in the ugly curse of the House of the Atreus. There before Mount Ida, he and his Myrmidons, “for nine years…have been cooped up here on the beach, all the vast hordes of them, Greeks of every clan and kingdom.” Malouf’s principal source, of course, is the greatest story any human has ever told, the majestic songs of the Iliad and Odyssey. He adds to it, as he writes in the afterword, with his store of experiences in Australia during wartime and readings from other ancient writers such as Apollodorus, as well as with liberal helpings of imagination that allow him to insert characters of his own invention into the proceedings. Given the possibilities already present in the tale of Achilles’ rage, Hector’s enmity and Patroclus’ suffering, some readers may find these inventions to be lily-gilding, but no matter. Malouf’s book works, illuminating the epics with language that comes from our own time while retaining its otherworldly poetry: “He is surprised, too, by the tallness of these Trojans. And their voices, which are thin and high-pitched, unlike his own and those of the folk he lives among.” Savor this poem in prose alongside Christopher Logue’s verse recastings of the Iliad in his War Music series.
A splendid, creative précis of ancient events that still reverberate.