The Paths of Survival

– the poetry of history –

Thumbs-Up: A Woman Gladiator in Roman London?

Image Copyright: Guildhall Library

In 1996, a 2nd-3rd century CE Roman grave was discovered in Southwark London containing some fascinating grave goods of eight clay lamps, one of which shows a fallen gladiator. Three more depict Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead in the Isis cult, who accompanied souls on their journey to the underworld and was often associated with gladiators (all are now on display in the Museum of London). So was this the grave of a professional gladiator? Possibly. But there was one further piece of the puzzle. This was the grave of a woman.

Female gladiators are known from imperial Rome and great excitement followed, particularly in the press, about the idea of one being buried in London. Archaeologists, as they are apt, were rather more wary. Some suggested that the woman could have been simply a devotee of the Games (Juvenal’s Satires reveal that many Roman women followed them avidly). Others concluded that the grave goods suggested a more general belief in the afterlife and the possibility of resurrection, represented by gladiatorial conquests and, in particular, their missio or respite after being defeated: the thumbs-up. In my poem from Ghost Passage, inspired by the grave, I wanted to admit to both possibilities. To keep things open, as poetry can do perhaps more easily than scholarship. The eerily atmospheric remains of London’s Roman Amphitheatre, hidden away beneath the Guildhall in the City of London, also provided inspiration.

Thumbs Up

Gladiator grave lamps, Southwark, London, 220 CE

Even as a girl I was besotted, mesmerised.
For my tenth birthday my father sent me
to the Games. He told me we were Isaics,
Syrians, who honoured the boundaries

between passing worlds, this and the next.
We did not come, he warned, to watch men die
but to rehearse our own, approaching deaths.
I learnt that we all stare through the cracks


of the Underworld. Gladiators report back.
That day I understood how it feels to breathe
by common lungs; how our fear pulses
through a shared vein, a spider’s thread spun


across from warrior to warrior to spectator.
Time passed. Once, somewhere, I gave birth;
my first kill was on account. The rest
without remorse. Thrust by thrust, lunge


by lunge, roar by roar, I matched the men
in battle lust. Now my own death is here.
I light its rusted path with lamps for Anubis
keeper of secrets, weigher of souls. I wait


at his trembling threshold to beg for missio
and redemption. Thumbs up. As I hesitate
in that closing light, I hear the hushed slow
hum of blood. And then walk with courage

from arena into gore-sluiced darkness.

Ghost Passage: Poetry as Archaeology

Today is the publication day of my new collection, Ghost Passage, from Shearsman Books. These poems are inspired by writing that stands outside the usual preconceptions of literature: inscriptions, graffitied household objects, and a cache of Roman writing tablets recently excavated at the Bloomberg site in the City of London. From these incomplete and fragmentary remnants of everyday life, I have teased out the stories of those who might have written them, extrapolating outwards to fill the space and silence that surrounds them. To explore history – and poetry – from the ground up.

This is where the ‘objectivity’ of archaeology and the ‘subjectivity’ of poetry overlap. Like poets, archaeologists seek to uncover lost fragments of human existence, the detritus we leave behind, whether physical or emotional. They forge connections between past and present, inevitably and inescapably reading that past in terms of our present. And where archaeology excavates beautiful, lost objects, long-buried in the accumulating silt of history, poetry excavates language, particularly image and metaphor, from the dusty inspiration of time and place. Both meticulously brush away the dirt to restore the colour and vibrancy to long-forgotten or discarded artefacts. Above all, both seek to reconstruct the tattered fragments, to rebuild the fallen cities, to give breath to the silent voices.

The following sonnet from the collection, “New Roman”, is based on Bloomberg Writing Tablet 79. This is scored simply with a Roman alphabet and apparently used for teaching letters. It probably dates from c.61/2 CE, just after London’s destruction by Boudicca. My inspiration here  was the rebuilding of a city after war, especially as I was working on the poem after watching news reports on children in Syrian refugee camps, desperate to return to school:

New Roman

Walbrook, London 61 CE

ABCDEFGHIKL
MNOPQRST…

In a charred shack we learn our lessons.

Through the smoke I can smell sorrel, ramsons,
blackthorn blossom drifting across like ash
as the shouts of soldiers shatter our hush
and wagons of the dead still roll on past.

We do not want this world, the old language:
destruction, put to fire, revolt, flight, death.
Our task is to etch a new alphabet –
new letters, new tools to rebuild our homes,
gardens for us children, games to play, schools.
We’ll smooth the jagged edge of dialect
and salve its gaping wounds in majuscule.

A-B-C: the scorched march of New Roman
turning blackened wood into cold white stone.

Josephine Balmer

For other poems from the collection on this blog, see here, here and here.

The Earliest London Pub

Some of the most important inhabitants of Roman London – at least for its new citizens – were those involved in the brewing, distribution and selling of alcohol. A recently-discovered writing tablet, excavated during the building of the new Bloomberg Headquarters in the City of London, contains the fragmentary accounts of one Crispus, a brewer or innkeeper (or both), detailing the consumption of rather large amounts of beer (WT.72).

The tablet dates from any time between c. 65-80 CE. For this poem (first published in New Statesman) from my forthcoming collection, Ghost Passage, I chose to situate it towards the end of this period, during the governorship of Agricola, father-in-law of the historian Tacitus. Tacitus recounts how Agricola expanded Roman territory into the far, wild north of Britain, and then on into Scotland or Caledonia – a time when his soldiers would surely have needed a few drinks to see them through…

Account

Supplied to Crispus’s tavern:
Beer,   5 denarii [1000 pints]
           7 denarii [1400 pints]

Night after night we had the thankless task
of keeping the city watered. As soon
as one emptied we’d fill another cask
until our streets brimmed with swaying legions
waiting on their orders (by all reports
our rash new governor, that ambitious
arsewipe Agricola, would now march north).

I didn’t blame them. As a veteran
I knew those roads, the rigid, bone-strewn paths
that level worlds while names, careers, are built.
This was Caledonia: dark, unmapped,
uncrossed, its tarns as deep as hidden guilt,
its forests trembling like a long-planned trap.
Every drop they drained would soon be spilt
.

Josephine Balmer

Keepsake: An Inscribed Stylus from Roman London

In the early 2010s, a tiny writing stylus was discovered at Walbrook in the City of London, during excavations for the Bloomberg European headquarters. Remarkably, this stylus, which dates to c.70 CE, was engraved on all of its four sides with a minuscule inscription.  

photograph © MOLA

Such finds are very rare. Its message was later painstakingly deciphered and transcribed by Dr Roger Tomlin of the University of Oxford, as you can find on a Museum of London Archaeology blog. As Dr Tomlin notes, the stylus appears to be a souvenir, a cheap gift to remind the recipient of its sender, with a message along the lines of our modern ‘I went to Rome and all I got you was this pen’.

 In the autumn of 2019, the stylus was exhibited for the first time as part of  the Oxford Ashmolean museum’s Last Supper in Pompeii exhibition where I was delighted to have an opportunity to see it. While scholarly attention was quite rightly focused on the message of the stylus and its possible recipient, when I began to write about it, I found myself wondering about its sender. Again, any find which illustrates literacy in the empire, particularly in the then new province of Britain, is bound to raise discussion about officials, soldiers or even traders – the male population of the island. But the voice that came to me was that of a woman with her own reasons to feel short-changed…:

 

Keepsake

From Rome,  a keepsake to bring you pleasure –
a pointed gift so you will always remember;
I wish I could have given you so much more
but the journey is long and funds are short.

I’m sure he threw it in the stream. London,
I’d heard, was in ferment, packed with pleasure:
fine wines, sweet ale, and most of all women,
its frost-edged dusk a lure to warm the bones.

My message, sharpened, in miniature,
would go unread, unmarked. He didn’t know
there was a further present still to come
from that brief, jasmined night he’d forgotten –
those pared hours we shared before he embarked –

but I relived by day; how the moon grazed
the sea at Ostia like a polished blade
as each serrated kiss cut time in half.
A keepsake to bring you pleasure. Ten days
old. Her father in replica. As sharp.

Josephine Balmer
(This poem first appeared in ARTEMISpoetry journal, 24, May 2020)

Destruction Horizon

romanboudicaIn 60 CE, nearly twenty years after the Roman emperor Claudius had annexed Britain, British tribes led by the Iceni Queen Boudica revolted against their Roman conquerors. In his account of the rebellion, the Roman historian Tacitus describes how the British first turned their attention to the city of Camulodunum, modern Colchester, razing it to the ground, before marching on Londinium or London.

Perhaps surprisingly, in the face of this threat, the then governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus, decided to retreat from the city and leave London to its fate; as the Roman historian Tacitus explains, he “abandoned a city to save the province”. With nothing standing in the way of her forces, Boudica’s sack of London was so savage that even now archaeologists refer to her ‘destruction horizon’ a layer of earth containing ash, soot and burnt artefacts denoting that past, catastrophic event.

boudica-town-hall-stain-glass-window-320-458The following poem, first published in the New Statesman earlier this year (18th April) is written in the voice of Suetonius Paulinus. It follows firstly Greek historian Cassius Dio’s description (63) of the portents that preceded Boudica’s attack and then Tacitus’s own account in his Annals (14.33) which pinpoints the human cost of Suetonius’s decision:

 

Destruction Horizon

Walbrook, London, 60 CE

On the streets, priests spoke of omens,
babbling voices in the lock-down Basilica,
laughter rattling out from empty theatres,
a twin city reflected in the rising Thames.

I didn’t waver. We didn’t have the numbers.
I gave the command to march on. Some came.
Most were trapped by age or sex, a strange
allegiance to this border post, a tenderness
for hovels they somehow held as home.
They saw the dust storm spinning nearer,
carrying their own deaths – and the British.
A tally of thousands for that bitch Boudica.

But we left them a marker in memorial,
our destruction horizon: impacted soil,
a trickle of red ash like dried-up blood.
Dig down. Dig deep. It’s soaked in the mud.

                         Josephine Balmer

destruction Horizon (2)

Let Go Fear: Future Virgils

Creusa & AeneasTomorrow marks the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death. As anyone who has suffered a similar loss will know, this time has passed so slowly and at the same time so quickly too. Last year I published a sequence of thirty sonnets, Letting Go, which traced the process of bereavement after a sudden death, from the first days of dazed disbelief to some kind of final acceptance, both of which will clearly be different for everyone. Last month I wrote the Afterword for a vast new study, Virgil and his Translators, edited by the endlessly patient Susanna Braund and Zara Torlone, in which I discussed a few of the sonnets in Letting Go I had written out of passages from Virgil’s Aeneid.

One of these, ‘Let Go’, which comes towards the end of the sequence, is based on a passage from Virgil, Aeneid, 2.768-94. Here, as Aeneas desperately searches Troy for his missing wife Creusa, her ghost appears to him, telling him to move on to Rome without her. The sonnet is based on a real dream I had in a Bed and Breakfast in Norwich after speaking at a seminar at the University of East Anglia – the sort of dislocation, the waking in strange beds that those who travel often for work will recognise – in which my mum did appear to me, suddenly, out of crowds on a street. In ‘Let Go’ I voiced my narrative through Aeneas’s first person account. This was because I was looking to transgress/transcend gender, but also because I wanted Creusa’s ghost to become my mother’s – which, inevitably, then cast me, in turn, as Aeneas. I also liked the device of turning Creusa’s somewhat dark message into a hopeful, warm one as this reminded me so much of the sort of thing my mother would do – the sort of thing she would want to say to me if she could (if not necessarily encouraging me to found a city empire …). As I wrote in my Afterword for Virgil and his Translators it ‘seemed a fitting memorial to my mother’s always unwavering support of my ambitions’:

 

Let Go 

after Virgil

Those nights I called her name in vain again
and again, filled ruined cities with tears.
I dreamt I reached familiar streets, my fear
fixing tongue to roof of mouth, hair on end;
again she came to me through parted crowds,
smarter than ever in weathershield mac,
blood red lipstick and jaunty, matching hat
like a warrior plume. ‘I can’t stay long now,’
she said, ‘yet am always here. Remember
to hold your hopes close, guard your ambition.
Love. Travel. Most of all, let go anger
or this exile of grief will be too long.’
I tried and tried and tried to embrace her
but, like a thought on waking, she was gone.

Josephine Balmer

See also Letting Go: head versus heart, Mother’s Day and Family Histories
Agenda Letting Go coverVirgil and his translators

 

 

Revisiting Sappho

Sappho coverAs a translator, revisiting a text or series of texts you first worked on many years ago is always a fascinating – and daunting – task. This week Bloodaxe Books publish a new, revised edition of my Sappho: Poems and Fragments, which initially appeared with Brilliance Books in 1984, followed in 1992 by its first Bloodaxe edition. The new volume contains translations of several recent discoveries of fragments by the Greek poet, some of which offer rewritings and re-readings of previously known fragmentary poems. Others provide tantalising glimpses of  hitherto unknown fragments.

One of the new fragments in this latter group, fragment 16a (No. 124 in Sappho: Poems and Fragments), derives from a series of papyri acquired by the private Green Collection in Oklahoma City, and later published by Sappho textual scholar Dirk Obbink in 2014.  Its sparse eight lines could represent the opening stanzas of a new poem that followed fragment 16, the Ode to Anactoria, in textual editions. Alternatively, in his latest textual edition of the new fragments, Obbink has argued that this new piece might instead constitute a continuation of fragment 16 itself, a poem many editors had previously thought complete.

Whatever the truth, the new fragment’s opening stanza appears to chime with the theme and concerns of much of Sappho’s love poetry; the nature of desire and the ways in which the lover might find happiness. As Obbink has noted, it also features a typically Sapphic progression from generalised experience (‘No, it is not possible for anyone/to be completely happy…’) to that of the individual, whether or not identified as the poet herself.

kairosThe fragment’s second stanza is far more incomplete but nevertheless contains some startling images. In line 6 of the fragment the words ep’akras, or literally ‘on the edges’, could refer to a Greek expression for ‘on tiptoes’. The following line appears to have an equally arresting reference to chion, in Homer used of fallen snow. This could evoke the figure of Kairos or ‘Opportunity’, the concept of acting at the correct time or seizing the day, which in Greek art and mythology was often portrayed as a young man running on tiptoes. But ep’akras was also used of being ‘on the edge’ of a changing season, particularly spring, which chimed with the later mention of (perhaps melting) snow. In addition, the verb which Obbink reads as ebas, or ‘you went’ echoes the eba (‘she went’) used of Helen’s desertion of Paris in fragment 16. And so I added in some conjectures here to include the image of a lover leaving like fleeting snow in the spring:

 

No, it is not possible for anyone
to be completely happy. And so we pray
that we might have our own small share. I myself
bear witness to this…                                                                       

[Seize the fleeting moment as it] comes to pass…  
… you went away on the brink [of spring]….
….[vanished like the melting] snow. But she…
…many things….
untitled

 


 

 

The Librarians’ Power

book as kindlingThis week is National Libraries Week, a celebration of the wonderful work libraries – and their librarians – do over and over again, day in, day out, offering us all free access to books, especially in these times of increasingly severe local authority budget cuts.

From classical times onwards, this work has always been highly-valued and history resonates with the grief of the loss of such institutions. The story of the destruction of the first great library at Alexandria is told over and over again, if often by sources hostile to the alleged perpetrators. We learn of the accidental fire of Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, the supposed malicious damage of rioting Christian mobs in 391 CE or even the alleged burning of the last few remaining volumes in the city’s bathhouse furnaces by its Arab conqueror Amr ibn al-Asi in 642  (the last is almost certainly apocryphal). Whatever the cause, whatever the agenda of its chroniclers, this sense of horror at the loss of the written word reverberates through the centuries.

But such devastating, wholesale destruction is not confined to the classical or early medieval era. In 2003, during the Gulf War, the famed and ancient National Library of Baghdad was set on fire by a stray incendiary bomb, illustrating how the destruction of literary culture is, sadly, still relevant to us in the twenty-first century. And how we should never take our libraries for granted.

Apart from the National Library’s own important collections, such Arabic centers of learning have always been important in preserving classical literature over the centuries, particularly scientific works. And within such works of science, small snatches of more literary texts were often quoted – and so also saved. And again, in 2003, its determined and dedicated librarians battled to recover its precious, ancient books in the aftermath of the bomb.

The following poem from The Paths of Survival was inspired by an article by Zainab Bahrani with photographs by Roger LeMoyne in the US journal Document (Spring/Summer 2013), and gives voices to those amazing Baghdad Librarians:

The Librarians’ Power

(The National Library, Baghdad, 2003)

We carried what we could to safety.

They seemed like something living:
fungus on an oak, the pleated folds
of open mushroom cup, organisms
that were once books, manuscripts,
now debris of ‘precision’ incendiary.

To conserve them we needed ice
not fire. In a ruined kitchen cellar
we found a freezer but no power;
we canvassed, coaxed, cajoled
until locals offered the sacrifice
of their one precious generator.

We were asked why we struggled
to save books while all around us
so many of our citizens were lost.
We could only say that, if not flesh,
here were dividing cells, bare blocks
of collective memory. Conscience.

The vast record of all our knowledge
and of our faith: an ancient Quran,
the House of Wisdom we had built;
the learning we alone had salvaged
and then protected for the Greeks –
Ptolemy’s Almagest, science, medicine.

Those lost worlds were retrieved
in the flash of forceps, lifting piece
on tiny piece, word on broken word.
Our own enduring, unshakeable belief
that in each newly-deciphered letter
a poem waited to be recovered.

Josephine Balmer

Baghdad Library burnt books

Letting Go: heart versus head

Agenda Letting Go cover

In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato characterised rational intellect and irrational emotion as two horses pulling a chariot which their struggling charioteer, or reason, is only able to steady if, of the two, the rational was allowed to prevail.As we would now say, a case of heart versus head. Publishing two books in as many months has, at times, seemed like being on a runaway chariot, particularly as each volume is so different from the other. The Paths of Survival, which came out in April, represents a series of third-person dramatic monologues exploring the loss of literary culture. And just published today by Agenda Editions, Letting Go offers a first-person sonnet sequence articulating my own deeply personal grief at the sudden death of my mother.

And yet, as Plato suggests, these two extremes represent two halves of one whole, the personal and the universal merging through the use of ancient texts, ancient myths and ancient history which act like Plato’s steadying charioteer of the soul. So both The Paths of Survival and now Letting Go explore the process of loss and gain; the frenzy of grief and the final acceptance of the stilled heart.

In Letting Go further dichotomies are established by the weaving of ‘original’ poetry and classical versions. The following poem, for instance, represents a scene familiar to anyone who anyone who has lost a beloved parent or partner:

Watch

Every day measures the same as the next…

 A few months later my father spread outmum's watch
some boxes on their bed – the jewellery
we’d helped him pick for anniversaries
and birthdays that we’d now no longer count.
I chose a pair of blue agate studs, sky
blanched, sea-washed, like her eyes. And her gold watch
so that I could still feel those same hours tick
on and on, the strict time that she’d lived by.
I wanted to think of her keeping score
of each lost second, holding that cold face
to the ear for one more, and then one more;
its hushed, imperceptible breath lasting
without end, nudging us back into place –
the soothing sound of her time still passing.

Here the ‘original’ sonnet is prefaced by a quote from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. A later sonnet in the sequence ghosts a passage from Plato, Symposium 179d; the philosopher condemns the poet Orpheus’ cowardice in travelling to the Underworld alive in order to rescue his dead wife Eurydice (rather than killing himself to join her there), attributing his failure, sent by the gods in punishment, to his lack of courage.

The passage struck a chord; a short while before my mother died, I’d had open by-pass surgery – which stops the heart, albeit briefly – for a rapidly deteriorating congenital condition. Following this, like any mum, she had called by daily to cheer me up and to help me do my everyday chores as I recuperated. Just over a year later she was gone, lost to her own undiagnosed heart condition.

And so, like ‘Cancel the Invite II’ from my earlier collection, Chasing Catullus, Plato’s harsh comments could mirror my own unease at being the one to pull through, as well as the crushing agony of any bereavement. In these lines, the philosophical, the rational, is couched in the emotional language of loss as each reflects on and informs the other:

By-pass 

after Plato

Orpheus2I knew the place already. Even if
for a second, I had been there myself
as my own heart was stopped and then started
again, healed. Perhaps that was why we failed,
could only grasp at the shadows of those
we had come to save, taking the coward’s
quest – or the poet’s – seeking out pathos,
regret’s raw matter, not willing to die
in our turn: tricksters who’d somehow contrived
a way to quit the gates of Hell alive.

So the gods sent punishment we deserved;
this quagmire grief that serves as its own curse.
The pain you cannot write through or by-pass.
That feels like too little love. Or too much.


You can buy Letting Go on Amazon here (if out of stock use PoetryBooksDirect in Marketplace) or direct from Agenda here

 

 

 

 

Final Sentence

 A tiny scrap of barely legible papyrus, now preserved in an Oxford library, has endured the long centuries since its inscription…

 

img_0296It is always a hugely exciting time when the hard work of several years is distilled into a written text. For this celebratory post on the publication of The Paths of Survival, as in the book, I’d like to begin at the end with a tattered piece of papyrus in the collection of an Oxford University library. Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2256 contains nearly 90 scraps of papyrus. Of these, number 55 constitutes four, barely legible half-lines of  Aeschylus’ lost play Myrmidons. Part of its text could read ‘kata skoton’ or ‘into darkness’ – a snatch, maybe, of the lover’s lament Achilles murmurs over Patroclus’ dead body. Here is the homoerotic passion which later rendered Myrmidons such a difficult and controversial work, probably sealing its demise (and a link, too, to the copy my fictional scribe is making, centuries earlier, in ‘Blot’ and then its disposal on the rubbish piles of Oxyrynchus in ‘The Pagan’s Tip’) .

POxy 2256 frag 55 (2)It is, of course, heart-breaking that, along with a handful or so of similar fragments, this is all we have left of Aeschylus’ tragic masterpiece. It is also a warning that our own cultures might be far more fragile than we think. Yet in each small miracle of survival, there is always something to celebrate. For somehow, by judgement or by error but mostly through happenstance, something of the written text, of literary culture, however damaged, however minuscule, has managed to escape all those centuries of ignorance, war, persecution and destruction. Like the lined faces of  the old, each crease and blemish tells a unique story of experience and endurance. Proof that words can – and do – thrive where all else is lost.

Final Sentence

(Sackler Library, Oxford, Present Day)

Still I am drawn to it like breath to glass.
That ache of absence, wrench of nothingness,
stark lacunae we all must someday face.

I imagine its letters freshly seared;
a scribe sighing over ebbing taper,
impatient to earn night’s coming pleasures
as light seeped out of Alexandria.

But in these hushed corners of Oxford
Library afternoons, milky with dust,
the air is weighted down by accruing loss

and this displaced scrap of frayed papyrus
whose mutilated words can just be read,
one final, half-sentence: Into darkness…
Prophetic. Patient. Hanging by a thread.

Josephine Balmer

The Paths of Survival is published by Shearsman.  You can order a copy  here or here.

shearsman-cover

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