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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

Was Like Nightfall

Knockin’ on Homer’s door

David Macfarlane

Speaking of the Iliad . . . I first heard Bob Dylan’s album Blood on the Tracks in 1975. I was living on Sackville Street in a three-storey, comfortably old apartment building that, like a lot of comfortably old things in Toronto, is no longer there. The summer was hot and humid. Ditto, that apartment. Did we have air conditioning? Are you kidding? As I said: 1975.

There were three of us. “Guys” is the term. What windows we had (not many) were open on those hot summer nights, and because the cramped, sad cages of the old Riverdale Zoo were only a couple of blocks down Winchester, the last unhappy lions (waiting to be transported to the new Metro Zoo) were part of the muggy nocturnal soundscape.

I was a waiter in a downtown steakhouse that summer. The money was good, but the work was stressful in a way that other summer jobs had never been. The place — all barnboard on the walls and peanut shells on the floor — appeared to its clientele as a big, busy, sort-of-hip, sort-of-high-end restaurant, but, in reality, under the pressure of a pre-theatre rush, it was a grenade with a precarious pin. Getting the kitchen staff ticked off was not a good thing for a waiter to do. They had cleavers.

It wasn’t that the work was too demanding physically, though being twenty-three helped. What got to me was the jangling in my head of a zillion tasks to perform ten minutes ago: the bills to add up, the Black Forest cake to deliver, the Harvey Wallbangers to pick up at the bar, the sour cream and bacon bits to replenish, the not-rare-enough sirloin to return to the already pissed-off grill boss, the table to set for a party of eight waiting impatiently at the door.

Sing, O muse, of the translation that brings back countless memories.

Blair Kelly

This was multi-tasking in overdrive. Then I realized that the jangling in my head continued when my shift was over. It was like a ghost limb, except it was a ghost restaurant full of ghost assholes, all mad at me.

The stress of eight hours in the hospitality industry, in combination with an unnecessarily prolonged breakup with my college girlfriend (me doing most of the gloomy prolonging), made for restless nights that summer. A pool of sweat is not a figure of speech when you have a broken heart in a heat wave and your bed is a slab of foam rubber on the floor. Being miserable kept waking me up. That and the lions.

The reason I mention this, apropos of Homer’s great epic, is that it was very specifically that apartment — that living room, to be even more specific — that hove so unexpectedly into view when I recently started Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Iliad. Pop cartons of LPs and a Garrard turntable were not details I expected the Trojan War to conjure.

As I read, I saw in my mind’s eye the murky interior of being twenty-three, not the plains of Troy. Achilles was about to address Agamemnon (none too politely, as it turned out), and suddenly there was that black dial telephone teetering on our collection of phone books and Doonesbury annuals and pizza boxes. The candle in the Southern Comfort bottle. The copies of National Lampoon and Village Voice covering surfaces not already covered by abandoned cereal bowls and paperbacks. A burial mound of roaches in the bottom of a big and otherwise useless green demijohn that one of us had contributed to the general decor.

These were the details (I could go on) that came back to me. Not out of nowhere, but more out of the black (of that thick, humid night) than out of the blue. A flash of memory: that’s the common phrase. But it was more like a bucket. An abrupt cascade of another time and place. And for some reason it happened when I picked up the Iliad, translated by Emily Wilson and published last year by Norton.

The quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon kicks off the narrative. It’s a fitting opening to a poem about war. Although I had a sense of the story already, I kept hoping that a goddess would box their ears. And, as is typical of men shouting, a lot of blood and grief follows. An epic amount, you could say.

Wilson’s translation makes the Trojan War feel oddly familiar. Goddesses excepted, there aren’t many women involved — and they’re usually hostages. The world Homer describes is as dominated by the masculine as the headlines of conflict and catastrophe are today. The toxicity in war’s cold heart is there from the start.

And that’s where I was: at the beginning. I was still in the first of the Iliad ’s twenty-four books when that airless, long-unthought-of living room splashed into mind.

I was by myself in the apartment that night. The lions were miserable: not unusual. The lions were always miserable, and my roommates both had girlfriends with cooler places. I decided that trying to get back to sleep wasn’t an option — at least not until the foam rubber dried.

There weren’t that many light fixtures to begin with. The bulb in the hall was burned out. Past the shadows of bicycles and empties, between the bathroom and the kitchen, was the cave we called the living room. Completely without ventilation. Good for listening to music since the dope smoke dissipated so slowly, if ever. Also, where the record player was.

By the summer of 1975, Dylan’s “new” album had already been out for several months. Critical reception had been mixed. Rolling Stone had not been kind in one of its reviews. But a Dylan album was a Dylan album. There it was, on the coffee table, among the newspapers and that eternally not-empty ashtray. One of us, perhaps me, had recently picked the record up, probably at Sam’s. My roommates and I shared music as a more domesticated household might share dish soap. Blood on the Tracks seemed like a good thing to play at 2 a.m. Still sealed in plastic, $7.39 in Magic Marker.

So that’s how it happened. Middle of the night. Burner on the stove. Pipe. Humidex through the roof. Don’t forget the lions. It was a bit like being in a Bob Dylan song.

The other thing about 1975 was how good the hash was.

“The singers of Iron Age Greece developed a world of stories,” Wilson notes in an informative, beautifully written introduction to her translation. “Bards chanted their songs with musical accompaniment, echoing and reinventing the tales they had heard from others.”

Wilson’s take on the Iliad is not simply an English representation of ancient Greek; it is also a printed version of a poem that for centuries was recited, chanted, sung, and, if not recited, made up, and, if not made up, creatively misremembered by who knows how many Homers before it was transcribed. The rises and falls of a story told, out loud, many times are embedded in Wilson’s translation. “I wanted to honor the poem’s oral heritage with a regular and audible rhythm,” she writes, “and with language that would, like the original, invite reading out loud, and come to life in the mouth.”

Anyone with an acoustic guitar (full disclosure) knows the difference between reading “Mr. Tambourine Man” and singing it. The latter activity (I suggest total privacy) makes it clear that Dylan’s lyrics demand performance. That’s what they’re for. I don’t think he was joking, or not entirely, when he described himself as a song and dance man. A performer’s need to capture and hold an audience’s attention is also in the DNA of the Iliad.

Gods and goddesses slip in and out of Homer’s Trojan War with ease, and perhaps it was their occasional presence that reminded me of celebrity musicians — the mysteriously charismatic divinities of the mid-’70s whose messages came down to us from the Mount Olympus of Columbia and Asylum Records.

Or possibly it was Homer’s many voices that reminded me of the multiple narrators of Dylan’s songs: the lost and heartbroken, the angry and funny, the romantic and blunt. The young and, increasingly, mortal. No doubt, in a few thousand years, credible arguments will be made that there could not possibly have been only one Bob Dylan.

Or it may have been a simpler connection. It may be nothing more than how good Wilson’s Homer is. I recommend it. You don’t run into something so excellent all that often.

John Keats wrote “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” in 1816. That sonnet compares the first translation of Homer in English to a view of a new world. “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.”

The same could be said of Wilson’s translation. And that may have been what my sudden slippage to 1975 was all about. I’d been surprised before — shocked, let’s say — by how good (how miraculously good) something could be.

Were I of a more classical mindset, I’d point out that this kind of weird connection (Homer to Dylan) was typical of flighty Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Because out of nowhere, suddenly, there I was. Turntable, speakers, the hazy view of the brick wall next door. I was sunk in the couch (a sidewalk rescue) when “Tangled Up in Blue” began. I was there when “Buckets of Rain” ended. Except to turn the record over, I don’t think I moved.

David Macfarlane is the award-winning  author of The Danger Tree and other books.

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