The Paths of Survival

– the poetry of history –

Category: Josephine Balmer

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.

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

 


 

 

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

The Pagan’s Tip

A family in fourth century CE Oxyrhynchus decides it is time to dispose of their library of classical, pre-Christian texts…

 

romanshelf libraryIn my last post, a fictional Alexandrian scribe copied lines of Aeschylus’ Myrmidons for a cash-rich family from Oxyrhynchus. Here, in another poem from my forthcoming collection, The Paths of Survival, we move on in time another two centuries to find his customer’s descendants deciding that, in a Christian empire, it is time to make a gesture.

oxysite rubbish mounds at oxyrhynchusIn particular, they feel, it would be politic to dump the works in their treasured family library on the town rubbish tip – including the copies of Aeschylus’ tragedies our cantankerous scribe had worked so hard to produce for them. Here, of course, the papyri will later be excavated in tattered strips by late nineteenth and early twentieth century archaeologists, beginning the painstaking process of piecing what little might remain of those texts back together…:

 

The Pagan’s Tip
(Oxyrhynchus, Upper Egypt, 370)

Today we sacrificed our last bull –
not easy with just the five of us.
Walking back with Kallas, my cousin,
we both agreed it was time to stop.
Now, we said, we are all Christians.

That night I gathered up the volumes
my family had prized over the years:
philosophy, poetry, the great dramas
of Aeschylus, epigrams of Palladas –
works our ancestor had bought home
in triumph from a trip to Alexandria.

Those pages hold our history like maps.
If I run my fingers over the covers,
their gold letters and tooled leather,
I can trace the twisted paths of our past.
This is who we were and what we are:
grammarians, clerks, petty bureaucrats.

On the shelf I replaced each space
with Paul’s Epistles, all the Gospels.
Ours I took out beyond the walls
among the flies and rotting waste,
left them there for the rats to soil
like any piece of discarded refuse.

Do the same, if you want my advice.

Josephine Balmer

The Paths of Survival will be published by Shearsman on April 7th.

shearsman-cover

%d bloggers like this: