As soon as a story is told, a retelling isn’t far behind these days. While it’s been a few thousand years since Achilles first had his day on the page, there’s risk inherent to tackling already-told tales. Yet in simple, modern language, Helen Armstrong brings the story of Achilles roaring off the page in an enticing way with her new collection Ambrosia and Fire.
She does well to center the war within Achilles early on by noting, “the knowledge of his death wars with his own blood. / this is the first war Achilles knows.” Achilles and war, physical and mental, remain inextricable for the rest of the collection. His story knows no other unifying thread, his body no other way of being. Even though the ground is well-trodden, Armstrong recognizes the essentials of Achilles’ tale. She understands what it might still have to say to us some thousands of years after its first telling while simultaneously elevating aspects of Achilles life that might often be dismissed.
The war and those who might distract Achilles from the war become everything to this brief revisit. Armstrong uses restraint to good effect, no individual poem lasting more than a page, forcing each line to carry a conversation’s weight. At one point she employs a mere two words to accelerate the story, noting the passage of time by having an entire page read, simply, “nine years.”
Knowing the destination is beside the point as Armstrong wrings surprises from the journey. And she does, particularly following a passage where plague breaks out in Achilles’ camp. In response to what the soldiers view as the wrath of the gods, Agamemnon gives up his prize, a woman, demanding Achilles do the same. Immediately following, at once scathing and effervescent in the way she comments against the original text and seeming lack of progress afflicting much of modernity, Armstrong says, “A woman cannot be a prize. A woman cannot be a thing to trade.”
As the Trojans close in and the war looks increasingly against Achilles, whose friends continue to fall around him, his compatriot Patroclus looks at him and discovers Achilles has become a stranger, twisted by war and conflict. “It’s hard to say what / drives us to do / anything,” Armstrong notes by way of concluding thought to Patroclus’ inability to recognize his friend and lover. It reads almost deadpan in its delivery, yet is all the more heartbreaking as we are made to feel what has been sacrificed by Achilles’ pursuit of war at all costs. He is a ruined man by the end; and we understand the ruin’s effect.
The collection slides into its final poem by stating, “what could a man be / without a war?” Achilles had no answer. And unless we mean to go the same way, we must come up with better answers for what men can be and fill their lives with.
Sometimes asking questions can be as important as answering them. Perhaps the best retellings do just this. In Ambrosia and Fire, the questions linger, the answers elude, and we are perhaps left with little else but to appreciate the deftness with which Armstrong has made an ancient tale pulse with new blood.
Ambrosia and Fire is published by Finishing Line Press.