Classical Versioning and the Articulation of Grief

by Josephine Balmer

DP114272In this second taster extract from ‘Piecing Together the Fragments’, I examine the writing of my first collection, Chasing Catullus, published by Bloodaxe Books in 2004, a work which employed classical texts and versioning as a means of approaching family bereavement and grief. It is also a memorial to my niece Rachel as this week sees the seventeenth anniversary of her death. She would have been twenty-five next month.

                 Speaking Through A Text: Ovid’s Many-Headed Hydra
At the same time as exploring new ways of approaching translation and versioning, I was also grasping for a way to deal with personal grief. Just after I finished Classical Women Poets and had began to work on Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate, my sister’s then six-year-old daughter was diagnosed with aggressive stomach cancer, a period which ended tragically with my niece’s death in August 1996. I had recorded these experiences in a notebook as a means of exorcism but had put these writings aside, too painful even for myself to read. But gradually through the dark fog of bereavement, I began to write again in the only way I found that I could: through the prism of classical literature – and its translation. Similarly, it is interesting that classical scholar Thomas Van Nortwick has recorded how his study of Greek literature, particularly Homer, helped him to come to terms with the early death of a beloved nephew. As he asks himself: ‘What can Greek literature teach me about the role of gifts in the life of a spirit?’

These new poems form a diary sequence, comprising Chasing Catullus’s second, central section, which follows, both directly or obliquely, the course of my niece’s illness, its most private or difficult events articulated through the voices of classical myth and literary reference, the vocabulary through which I could begin to the unsayable. As Sullivan notes of Pound’s various literary ventriloquisms: ‘[he] realized that what he wanted to express could only be expressed in that particular way.’ In addition, Elizabeth Dodd has argued that American women poets such as H.D., Elizabeth Bishop and Louise Glück, have worked in a form of ‘personal classicism’, a means to become a woman poet in a male, literary world but at the same time to avoid the confessional tone of Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath…

…The sequence also made use of embedded quotes from classical texts – the quotes Stephen Harrison has termed ‘appropriated’ – in order to articulate a dialogue between source text and original poem. For example, the poem, ‘Cutting the Hydra’, a proverbial expression in classical Greek for attempting an impossible task, addresses a surgeon’s initially confident but, tragically, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to remove my niece’s tumour. Here, the poem’s first stanza is based on Ovid’s account of Hercules’s slaying of the monstrous many-headed serpent, the Hydra (Metamorphoses 9. 67-78). As Hercules’ heroic confidence is deflated, its second stanza returns to my own narrative voice, referencing the later myth of Hercules, killed by his wife Deianira, who gave him a shirt dipped in the Hydra’s poisonous blood:

Cutting the Hydra

He said: “It’s child’s play, the cradle work of Junior days,
labours I’ve performed since I was little more than boy;
so if you think we can be beaten by some snake in grass,
remember, of this seething coil, you are one small part:
true, it breeds on its own death; hack away a head, any
of its many hundred necks, and two improved grow back,
fed on evil, foul branches of the serpent’s tree
but I’m its master – and what I master I destroy.”

Afterwards he couldn’t even look us in the face.
I saw him going home to his own Deianira,
tucking into cutlets, mash, one more gin with bitters,
white coat deflated on its peg, buff suit skinned and shed.

As we have seen, for Pound, such adopted selves were masks or personae, a means of speaking through another text. And in these poems, too, as in many others in the sequence, appropriating these different, classical selves allowed me to communicate the horror of the situation without directly narrating it, providing ‘the profound place to hide’ that Charles Rowan Beye has seen in the field; a slippage of self-construction and self-image, affording a means to be of myself and yet out of the self. As I noted in a 2006 paper for the ‘Self and Identity in Translation’ conference at the University of East Anglia, I needed a form that would allow me to practise deception, if not self-deception, a self-protective mechanism which could shield me from the horror of the experience described. All in all, the reality was too painful, too shocking, and ultimately too private, to be portrayed any other way except through the shifting filter of classical literature, weeding out what was or wasn’t acceptable, what might or might not be palatable, not just for the writer but for the reader too.
                                                                                                                                      Josephine Balmer

You can find more details on Piecing Together the Fragments on the OUP website here. Or pre order it on Amazon here. T51BWqT1tOsLhere is also a small article about it in the current OUP Classical Studies catalogue which you can find here.

Next time: a discussion of the issues surrounding the use of personal experience in art – and how speaking through classical texts might help us to resolve them.