Vol. 43 No. 23 · 2 December 2021

A Spear Stuck in the Sand

(From Book 19 of the Iliad)

Christopher Logue

647 words

Listen to this piece read by the author

Now I shall ask you to imagine how
Men under discipline of death prepare for war.
There is much more to it than armament,
And kicks from those who could not catch an hour’s sleep
Waking the ones who dozed like rows of spoons;
Or those with everything to lose, the kings, 
Asleep like pistols in red velvet.
    Moments like these absolve the needs dividing men.
Whatever caught and brought and kept them here
Is lost: and for a while they join a terrible equality,
Are virtuous, self-sacrificing, free:
And so insidious is this liberty
That those surviving it will bear
An even greater servitude to its root:
Believing they were whole, while they were brave;
That they were rich, because their loot was great;
That war was meaningful, because they lost their friends.
    They rise! – the Greeks with smiling iron mouths.
They are like Nature; like a mass of flame;
Great lengths of water struck by changing winds;
A forest of innumerable trees;
Boundless sand; snowfall across broad steppes at dusk.
    As a huge beast stands and turns around itself,
The well-fed, glittering army stands and turns. 

Nothing can happen till Achilles wakes.

He wakes. 

Those who have slept with sorrow in their hearts
Know all too well how short but sweet 
The instant of their coming-to can be.
The heart is strong, as if it never sorrowed;
The mind’s dear clarity intact; and then,
The vast, unhappy stone from yesterday
Rolls down these vital units to the bottom of oneself.

Achilles saw his armour in that instant
And its ominous radiance flooded his heart.
    Bright pads with toggles crossed behind the knees,
Bodice of fitted tungsten, pliable straps;
His shield as round and rich as moons in spring;
His sword’s haft parked between sheaves of grey obsidian,
From which a lucid blade stood out, leaf-shaped, adorned
With running spirals.
    And for his head, a welded cortex; yes,
Though it is noon, the helmet screams against the light;
Scratches the eye; so violent it can be seen
Across three thousand years.

    Achilles stands; he stretches; turns on his heel;
Punches the sunlight, bends, then – jumps...
And lets the world turn fractionally beneath his feet. 

Noon. In the foothills
Melons emerge from their green hidings. 

    He walks towards the chariot.
Greece waits.

Over the wells in Troy mosquitos hover.

    Beside the chariot,
Leading the sacred horses; watching his this-day’s drive,
Cinch, shake out the reins, and lay them on the rail. 
    Dapple and white the horses are; perfect they are;
Sneezing to clear their cool black muzzles.

    He mounts.

    The chariot’s basket dips.  The whip
Fires in between the horses’ ears.
And as in dreams, or at Cape Kennedy, they rise,
Slowly it seems, their chests like royals, yet
Behind them in a double plume the sand curls up,
Is barely dented by their flying hooves,
And wheels that barely touch the world,
And the wind slams shut behind them. 

    ‘Fast as you are,’ Achilles says,
‘When twilight makes the armistice,
Take care you don’t leave me behind
As you left my Patroclus’

    And as it ran the white horse turned its tall face back
And said:
This time we will, this time we can, but this time cannot last.
And when we leave you, not for dead, but dead,
God will not call us negligent as you have done.’

    And Achilles, shaken, says:
‘I know I will not make old bones.’
    And laid his scourge against their racing flanks. 

Someone has left a spear stuck in the sand.

This extract is published to mark the release of Christopher Logue’s reading of his poem ‘War Music’ on audiobook for the first time, on the tenth anniversary of his death.

Sections of the poem were first published in the ‘London Review’:

Big Men Falling a Long Way

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