The Paths of Survival

– the poetry of history –

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.


The Scribe’s Blot

A grumpy scribe finds solace in the Greek play he is copying – and two words in particular that will survive when the rest have been lost…


scribes anticaScribes are the unsung heroes of the survival of any classical work; without them there would be no written papyrus texts and codices, and hence no fragments of drama or poetry. We know that scribes often worked from ‘scriptoriums’, maybe booths or workshops in city marketplaces where customers might request a work to be copied for their private libraries.

But what did the scribes themselves feel about the work they copied – and sometimes saved -for posterity? In the following poem, from my new collection The Paths of Survival, a grumpy and rather troubled scribe from second century CE Alexandria  feels he is wasting his time as he copies Aeschylus’ Myrmidons – a difficult and by now increasingly obscure text – for a socially mobile client. He knows that they will almost certainly never read the play but instead be looking to impress their friends and neighbours with their highbrow taste (while the knowledge that his customer comes from Oxyrhynchus alerts us to the fact that, far in the future, the scribe’s hard-copied text will turn up in tatters, excavated from the rubbish tips of the ancient city). And yet, as he proceeds with his work, he finds echoes of his own sorrow in Aeschylus’ tragic play – and two words that will survive when the rest have been lost…


(Alexandria, 150)

It barely matters if I blot or blotch –
these days no one asks for Aeschylus.

As light fades I head for the streets –
a cheap tavern or the house of whores –
to scrub off this stain of guilt and remorse,
flaws that cling like yesterday’s rotten fish.
On mornings after, I retake my seat,
propping up each eyelid with stylus tip,
making errors I can later edit… 

And then, today, a buyer for my script:
some pompous provincial bureaucrat
up from Oxyrhynchus with hard cash,
back-handers he’s been itching to shift.
He claims he wants High Art, Myrmidons
(though he couldn’t tell drama from dog shit –

all he cares is how it looks on the shelf).

For him I etch these words of love and grief.
I think of my wife, dead after a few weeks;
there’d been a baby, some complication,
the pockmarked physician couldn’t tell which.
I came back one night and she was gone.

Into darkness… The skin I, too, must live in.
Mistakes uncorrected, holding the blame.

The only words left now to mask the pain.

   Josephine Balmer

(A longer version of this poem first appeared in Arion (24.2: Fall, 2016))




The Monastery’s Treasure

A tiny yet passionate fragment of Aeschylus’s lost drama Myrmidons is discovered in a surprising place…


zavordaIn 1959, a previously unknown edition of the ninth century Lexicon of Photius  was discovered at the remote Greek Orthodox Monastery of Zavorda in Macedonia, northern Greece (you can find an account of this by Roger Pearse here). This edition included some pages that were not available in other known editions of the Lexicon, all based on the Codex Galeanus, a 12th century parchment ms. of 149 leaves. Although the Zavorda manuscript is later than the Codex Galeanus, dating from the 13th-14th century, it is the only complete surviving manuscript of the text, containing additional pages and entries absent from other editions, including words beginning with alpha (άβ to άγ).

I was taken with the fact that these new extra pages include the Greek word abdeluktos which, as previously discussed,  Photius tells us means ‘without stain’ or ‘absolved of blame’. Unlike other, later sources, he also notes that it originates in a line from Aeschylus’s lost play Myrmidons, almost certainly as the grieving hero Achilles embraces the corpse of his slain lover Patroclus, exclaiming that such an act is not an abomination ‘because I love him’.

b15f7f0c9bf1b615d0536e1586c85870Photius’ Lexicon is not alone in surviving in the library of a Greek monastery; many works were taken to such safe places following political and religious upheavals in the east, for example after the sack of Constantinople by western soldiers during the so-called Fourth Crusade in 1204, as explored in an earlier post here. As well as marvelling at the tiny miracles and random happenstance at the heart of such textual survivals, I also wondered how the monks would have felt had they known that, for centuries, they had been custodians of evidence of such a passionate, later forbidden love.


The following poem, ‘Trespass’, from my collection, The Paths of Survival, explores that conundrum through the voice of an imaginary monk, forming a companion piece to Photius’s own voice in the poem ‘Gloss’.



(Monastery of Zavorda, Macedonia, 1959)

From the crag we watched as he drew
near, creeping closer like a contagion.
‘My son, we have been expecting you,’
our unsmiling abbot said in welcome.
From the cadence of his voice we knew
he was not talking of days or decades
but the dry passage of our centuries.
For weeks our guest rifled the libraries,
their rare treasures piled around him –
like a child’s toys or stored-up treats.

Now our abbot did not eat or sleep.
We saw the apprehension in his face
as if some half-recalled, splintered dream
had returned, long dreaded, to haunt him,
a fear he could barely form or elucidate.
Our guest found all he had come to seek:
a tattered codex wrapped round in rags
like some precious shard of brittle glass.
He put on his hat and coat, his work done,
a few more words for his literary canon:

Abdeluktos philo. Absolved because I loved him
Anathema. The taint of unconstrained sin –
a snatch of Aeschylus’s foul Myrmidons.
In its shadow we had held sacred homily,
called our brethren to vespers, benediction.
Now it was unleashed again, this heresy
we had guarded here without knowing
for so long. Unspeakable acts. Trespass.

We waited as he faded, a blur in the dark,
disappearing back into fold of river pass.

                                                  Josephine Balmer




The Patriarch’s Gloss

A rare Greek word – and a homoerotic line – from a lost tragedy,  preserved in a Lexicon compiled by an uncompromising Byzantine Pope, provides a link between atrocity, justification and language.


photiusPhotius I (later St Photius the Great) was a secular clerk who was appointed Patriarch (or Pope) of Byzantium in 858 following a time of often bloody religious schism in the city between the iconclasts, who wanted to destroy images of God as idolatrous, and the orthodox church, which viewed such depictions as holy relics. In 868 Photius was temporarily unseated but returned to the patriarchal throne in 877 when he continued his persecution of the city’s Jews.


phot-lexiconAt the same time, Photius was revered as a cultured man whose classical scholarship was second to none. His Lexicon, probably written in his youth and revised later, contains many rare Greek words and their usage, including abdeluktos, an adjective meaning something like ‘absolved of blame’. Photius tells us the word originates in a line from Aeschylus’s lost play Myrmidons, probably from a  scene in which the grieving hero Achilles caresses the body of his dead lover Patroclus. In recording it, this uncompromising Church father preserved perhaps one of the most controversial scraps of  Aeschylus’s tragedy for the future. The following sonnet from my new collection  The Paths of Survival (Shearsman, April 2017)  first appeared in New Statesman, and explores the link between atrocity, justification and language:


(Photius I, Byzantium, 858/877)


I worked my way up by my wits, from clerk
to city Patriarch. I corrected
each schism, effaced the iconoclasts
until our gilded streets turned black. And red.

In broken churches we counted the deaths.
I remembered a reed-slim boy of nine
or ten, the taste of his salt lips on mine –
weed-choked detritus dragged from Golden Horn.

Now terms were defined in my Lexicon.
I started with alpha: Abdeluktos.
Above blame. Any heretics tortured,
maimed. Absent of guilt. All Jews slaughtered.
[ᴂbdɛlʊktos]. A sword hissing through bone.
Absolved. Assaults washed clean by each fresh gloss.

Josephine Balmer



The Clerk’s Crusade

800px-PriseDeConstantinople1204PalmaLeJeuneEight hundred and twelve years ago to the day, on April 8th 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, the siege of Constantinople began. What distinguishes this Crusade is that, rather than a conflict between Christian and Muslim Arabs, it pitted Christian against Christian, as mutinous Crusader forces from the western or Latin church turned their attention on the eastern city of Constantinople, drawn, in part, by the booty to be looted from its famous riches.

With the help of a Venetian army, the Latins set up camp across the Golden Horn in Galata but, after an initial assault, were driven back by bad weather. On 12th April they launched another attack, this time breaching the city walls by burrowing holes just big enough for single soldiers to crawl through. For three days the Latins looted the city, destroying its Library and melting down its golden treasures to cart away. Thousands were killed or raped, churches were stripped of their holy treasures.

In the following poem, from my collection, The Paths of Survival, my clerk- narrator is fictional but the incidents he describes are based on contemporary eye-witness accounts, including the rather ignominious departure of the city’s aristocracy. And yet they, like my anonymous clerk, were probably responsible for saving many great works of literature from the city, taking them away with them to Nicaea,  where the Byzantines established new empire states, or the safe hiding places of monasteries in Greece.


 The Clerk’s Crusade
                     (Constantinople, 12th April 1204)

The first thing we noticed was mortar
crumbling, sand trickling from a stone.
Even rats, the Captain shrugged, get restless
under siege, gnawed by our same hunger.
The guards returned to their next throw
of dice. And I slunk back to Library desk.

We could not know, did not even guess
our city was already falling, already ash.

Next day we all saw it, the slab shift
and slowly tilt. We stood transfixed
as a single block of wall rolled back
and chasm opened where it collapsed;
ten withered fingers gripped the edge,
then Crusader helmet on Crusader head.
Our captain gave orders. On cue we fled.

That night Byzantium was melted down.
Everything they could move, they took.
All else was toppled into steaming pots,
vast statues shrunk to stumps of bronze,
for each piece of tessera, another life lost. 

Myself, I looted what they overlooked.

As Latin bishops stripped our churches
of jewels, I stuffed my splattered jerkin
with a few foxed and battered books:
Photius’s Lexicon, Lucian, Athenaeus.
Here was no Holy War but Christian
against Christian, West against East.
Better the Saracens. They had belief.

I ran back through the streets, slipping
on spilt blood, fresh excrement, filth.
Far off, a woman sobbed, out of reach.
I squeezed out through the breach,
a conqueror in reverse. For in Nicaea
or the monasteries of Thessalonica,
we would soon found another empire.

Our nobles crept away like thieves
as the Latins jeered, waving inkpots,
quills – the weapons not of warriors
but meek scholars, they hissed.

                                               Let them mock.

Where they had cruelty, we had culture.
Where they had greed, we had Greek.

                                                      Josephine Balmer




Mother’s Day



KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAToday is Mothering Sunday in the UK. It would also have been my mother’s 82nd birthday. It’s a difficult day for all who have lost a beloved parent – or child – but the following poem, from my forthcoming sonnet sequence, Letting Go (Agenda Editions, July 2017), sees the beginning of a reconciliation with grief, offering in its place a celebration of mothers and daughters through the generations. Its starting point is a passage from Homer’s Odyssey Book 9 (lines21-8) in which Odysseus, who has been washed ashore on Phaeacia, longingly tells the Phaeacians of his own home island of Ithaca from which he has now been absent for 20 years.

2015-04-27 15.42.17Odysseus’s description seemed to chime with the view from a seat on the coastal foot path near my mother’s childhood house in Marazion, west Cornwall. As a girl, my mother often sat on the seat with her own mother or her aunt on the way to church at Perranuthnoe on Sunday evenings. Later I sat with her there many times, looking out over St Michael’s Mount and its Bay, chatting about family or the wildflowers we saw in the verges. I sat there again last April with my husband Paul just as the blossom was coming out along the hedgerows:


Even from the bench, the bay is undimmed;
beyond hazy blackthorn the Mount quivers
as its pine trees tilt, reeled back by the wind –
the marker that tells us we’re really here
at the far point, lying low, facing west.
Below, rocks snag across a land on loan
from the turning tide, shrunk into darkness.
Nothing soothes the soul like the sight of home:
this one rears daughters fierce as fighting men.
Here’s where you rested with your own mother
watching swifts dip, dissect the setting sun,
by paths picked out in selfheal and clover.
Blood and bone pack the sacred ground beneath:
your place. My longed-for Ithaca. Our seat.

Josephine Balmer




Family Histories

330px-Gela_Painter_-_Black-Figure__Pinax__(Plaque)_-_Walters_48225As I explored previously in my 2004 collection, Chasing Catullus (and my subsequent study Piecing Together the Fragments), ancient, classical texts have long provided us with a means to articulate present grief. Five years ago this month, in November 2010, my mother died very suddenly of a heart attack. It took a long time to be able to write about this and even then, as with Chasing Catullus, I found I could do so only through the resonant echo of classical voices.

AgendaFamilyHistoriesfrontcoverJust published in the latest edition of Agenda, Family Histories, the following sonnet is based around lines from Aeneid 2 (735-55), in which Aeneas, escaping from a burning Troy with his family, realises to his horror that his wife Creusa is no longer with them.

(The full sequence, Letting Go, is published by Agenda Editions in July 2017)

(after Aeneid 2.735-55)

Up to that point, I was still in the dark.
I was retracing steps, staring down paths
I saw as ours, not knowing she had been
ripped from us already, had slipped unseen
as she sat down to rest. We’d just spoken –
I heard her laughing, hanging up the phone –
but when next we gathered, friends, family,
one of us would be missing, tricked away.
I bargained with gods I did not worship;
I blamed, I begged ambulance men, medics.
Reaching home, I tried to put on armour,
convincing myself that they had saved her,
that they had been in time, they had, they had…
In response there was only silence, dread.

Josephine Balmer


Parallel Griefs, Ancient and Modern

chocolate hill, suvla bayNext Saturday, on Anzac Day, Australians and New Zealanders around the world will gather at Anzac Cove on the Gallipoli peninsula, Turkey, to remember, one hundred years on, their compatriots who landed here in April 1915 during the bloody – and ill-fated – First World War campaign. But less well-known is the involvement of British soldiers, landing at Helles to the south of the peninsular and later, in August 1915, at Suvla to the north.

Strangely, perhaps, I stumbled on the stories of these British soldiers while working on Ovid’s Tristia, the verses written after the Roman poet’s sudden and mysterious exile from Rome to the Black Sea in AD 8. For my translations, I was using Perseus, Tufts University’s excellent online FullSizeRenderclassical library and lexica, when a sudden electrical storm required me to log off from the internet. Instead, I took down an old second-hand Latin dictionary I had bought at a village fair as a student. Here, as if for the first time, I noticed a name inked faintly on its fly-leaf, with a date, January 1900. A few internet searches revealed that my dictionary’s original owner had later fought with the Royal Gloucester Hussars at Suvla on Gallipoli, near to Ovid’s own place of exile on the Black Sea.

ovid in exile at hellespontMy subsequent poetry collection The Word for Sorrow (Salt, 2009), interspersed versions of Tristia with original poems tracing the story of my old second-hand dictionary being used to translate them. Presenting Ovid’s story in parallel with that of the Gallipoli soldiers, as well as narrating my own progress as I uncovered the past like a detective, seemed to provide a new way to approach the perhaps over-familiar subject of the First World War; to celebrate the sometimes surprising ties of grief we all share, whether we live at the beginning of the first, the twentieth or the twenty-first century AD.

Here are two poems from the collection; in the first, based around contemporary eye-witness accounts and regimental war diaries, the RGH land at Suvla on August 18th 1915.  In the second, the exiled and despairing Ovid dreams of Rome.

(I never knew blood smelt so strong…)

For a prize of dirt, few square yards of scrub,
they fought like gods as soil soaked red,
shallows curdled, stagnant with corpse-shoals. 

Across Suvla plain, Geoffrey’s men marched out,
without maps, with no idea where to attack,
a storm-spray of chalk and dust and blood – 

too dense, too dark to tell if theirs or ours.
They crawled back like ghosts, skin singed,
clothes in tatters, tongues burnt black, 

press-ganged workers after abattoir nightshift;
some spoke only in whimpers, others cried
for comrades mown down by unseen scythe, 

smouldering khaki all that marked the spot.
Now the dried salt lake brimmed with body parts
as if netted by fishermen’s bumper catch: 

Englishmen. Dead Englishmen. Hundreds of them.
We’d never seen a corpse before and here they were,
stacked like logs or mackerel on moon-blanched shore, 

mouths open, eyes wide, all just staring back,
our horror reflected in each gasping, glassy face.
We thought of home. It seemed a happy place. 


Naso Off the Shelf
from  Ovid Tristia, 3.1)

I dreamt my book went home again,
transformed, reformed, shuddering
like Proteus on the turn, changing shape;
no longer versed in youth’s green passion
but old age’s brown and shrivelled hate,
bound in sadness, grief’s dark script.
And I walked with it through my city’s
empty squares, footsteps soft as leaf-
fall on glittering autumn streets,
unfolding the faded map of my past life:
the Forum, the Sacred Way, the Palatine,
statues, temples, stacked libraries,
where all great works, ancient or modern,
can be read by any who might seek.
Now my book, too, tried to enter
as a guard blocked its dragging feet.
On tip-toe, noses pressed on misted pane,
we saw the touch of smoothing hand
but not for us – these lines are banned.
We heard the hush of unrolled volumes
but not of ours – by far the worst exile for them:
The shame is mine, of my Ars amatoria;
it stains each new page, sins of their father.

I talked too long of love, that was my ‘crime’
yet my ‘error’ was to see and not speak out.
And so my book is closed, my heart has died.
Poetry must, poetry can only tell the truth.
In life we have to lie to stay alive.

 Josephine Balmer

Find out more about The Word for Sorrow here 1844712931book.qxd

Palladas: The Other Half Speaks Out Part II

Palladas papyrusIn the second part of this blog on my new versions of Palladas (see previous post), commissioned for a conference at UCL, I would like to move on to the poems from the newly-discovered papyrus. Due to their far more fragmentary nature, these were a harder, but equally, perhaps, a more intriguing task. That said, with the help of Kevin Wilkinson’s excellent, recently-published commentary, I found their voices soon slipped into place.

The first fragment I worked on was p.13 lines 18-32. Here is a literal translation, which at very glance looks very obscure indeed:
Another one against [?] slavish [?]…
Beans, which are now called faba…Very hateful indeed to Pythagoras of Samos. We will continue to hold to that man’s warning: that it is equivalent…both to eat beans and the heads of our fathers…related..melted in fire. .the most ridiculous thing… and the flesh of four-footed animals…food…Pythagoras…very much indeed…Pythagoras…take on…all kinds of food..
Fortunately, Kevin Wilkinson’s commentary provided a way in, explaining most of the poem’s obscurities as satirical references to Pythagorean practices and beliefs – their caveats against eating beans, as evidenced by Pythagoras’ famous dictum that to do so would be ‘like eating the head of one’s father’, as well as their abstention from alcohol and meat. And so these perplexing pieces could form into some sort of sense, illustrating how scholarship and creativity can work together:

Against Slavish Fads
Flageolets (which used to be plain ‘beans’)
Are never, ever eaten by the Pythagoreans.
They all defer to the great man’s dictums:
Dining on beans, it seems, is prohibited –
Like boiling dear old Dad’s bald head.
And alcohol? Well, that too is verboten:
As fire melts iron, they say, so wine, wisdom.
You ask what could be more ridiculous?
They also hate meat, disdain its finest cuts. 

God help the woman who takes on the task
Of shopping – or even catering – for Pythagoras. 

The next fragment was possibly even more problematic with only five half-lines surviving. Although here we seem to be back in very familiar Palladas territory – the deviousness of women. This is a literal translation:
Alas, o respectable woman, the…clever hair-splittings…if, on account of the rich…and their wives…. but you…just the same…
And this is the new poem I fashioned out of these various scraps:

On Honour Among Wives
 ‘Respectable’ women are the ones to beware;
They open their legs and then they split hairs
With such clever talk about ‘minor infidelities’ –
What constitutes ‘cheating’, or counts as a ‘lie’.
The rich, most of all, should proceed with care,
Those wealth creators – at least for their wives.
You think you bought a spouse, a slave in name?
You know what your wife thinks? Just the same.

 My next chosen fragment was page 18, lines 1-9. Its literal translation – such as it is – reads as follows:
…is weakened, for the help from… I babble…and a mist steals over my eyes…my…is being supported [nourished? well-grown?] …to the soles of my feet…I am becoming paler…it will be necessary for one who has fainted [or endured?]…
Despite its apparent obscurity, I found this piece fascinating. As Kevin Wilkinson notes, it echoes Sappho fragment 58, in which she describes the adverse effects of old age, such as the weakening of the knees. But I was also reminded of Sappho fragment 31, which lists the various physical symptoms of passion.  So these Sappho fragments became another intertextual reference for my version, which, in turn, became a mash-up of both Sappho and Palladas. Again, it offers a male narrative voice, if slightly lacking, I think it is fair to say, in self-awareness:

Love in Old Age
As soon as I sit next to her, my bones creak;
There’ s no help for it as my knees turn weak.
My words tangle, my tongue lisps and twists;
My voice grates – and then her eyes start to mist.
My pot belly swells, begins to quiver –
A fine figure (if I don’t look in mirror).
A fire shoots down to the tip of my toes
As my gout flares up, takes its endless hold.
I seem to fade away, I am paler
Than stale piss, faint from high blood pressure…  

But believe you me, all can be lived through –
For even an old man might one day pull…

My final version of Palladas was one of the more complete poems on the papyrus, p.10 lines 24-9, which, as Kevin Wilkinson points out, poses a philosophical question and then satirically answers itself:
Another One…
If we wish to put an end to the discord and the strife, I would like to introduce a motion, a truly marvellous one: let us appoint ambassadors to go down to Pluto. – Whom, then, shall we persuade? – It’s not impossible. Pay out five talents and Heron will be persuaded again.
No one is quite sure who this Heron in the last line might have been, or why he gained a reputation for taking on any diplomatic task, however unlikely – providing the price was right. But immediately I saw a perfect modern analogy for the unknown Heron. There is also a touch of Blackadder’s Baldrick in the translation here too…:

Another Cunning Plan
If we want to end conflict, put peace in place,
I have a cunning plan, yes, truly otherworldly:
Send envoys down to all the soldiers in Hades;
Canvass those who paid the price, face to face.
But who might undertake the task? No worries.
Put up five million – and Tony Blair is on the case.

With thanks to the conference organisers – Professor Edith Hall of Kings College, London and Professor Chris Carey and Dr Maria Kanellou of University College, London. And to Professor Kevin Wilkinson for all his exhaustive work on the papyrus.

Palladas: The Other Half Speaks Out I

Palladas picThese versions of Palladas were commissioned for ‘Palladas: The New Papyrus’, an international conference held at  University College, London on 4th-5th September 2014. This centred on the discovery of a new codex containing around 60 new epigrams (possibly!) by the fourth (or maybe fifth?) century AD Alexandrian poet. These have recently been published with an exhaustive commentary by Professor Kevin Wilkinson of  the University of Toronto.

After reading the poems, I decided that my versions could only answer the ill-tempered misogyny for which Palladas is famed. Hence my title, The Other Half Speaks Out. I also decided to work both on some of the older epigrams, long collected in the Greek Anthology, as well as some of the new, mostly very fragmentary poems from the papyrus.

My first version was of Palladas 9.773, a famous epigram, often taken to refer to the triumph of Christianity over paganism. Here the poet imagines a statue of the Greek love god Eros, melted down into a frying pan, presumably now superfluous to requirements in a predominantly Christian world. A literal translation of this is as follows:
A bronze-smith, melting down Eros, fashioned a frying pan – not unreasonably, since that too burns.
But as I began to work on the poem, it occurred to me that the juxtaposition of love, frying pans – and burning – might have extra resonances for women readers. This was my new version:

From Fat to Frying Pan
First he burned with words, kisses;
Promising a life together, a few kids.
And then it was: where’s my breakfast?
Or, I don’t like my eggs done like this.
Time, like an alchemist or blacksmith,
Has hammered out love, our own Eros,
Shrunk it down, from fat to frying pan.
Never mind: now it is my turn to burn
The best bacon. To waste his good eggs.

My next new version was after 11.287, one of Palladas’ most difficult poems for a woman translator (and/or reader) to approach. In fact, when I Googled it for a text, the first heading that came up was ‘Patriarchal Male Fantasy’. The literal translation shows why:
Cursed with an ugly wife, when he lights the evening candles, he still sees only gloom
In my version, the woman, that wife, responds to her particular charmer of a husband:

Holding a Candle
When I hear his step on the stair,
See the flicker of the evening light
On his yellow teeth or thinning hair
As he peers into that gloomy night,
I turn my face to the peeling wall.
I dream of the lips of my first love
While he snores on or snuffles off.
 He couldn’t even hold a candle.

My final version of an ‘old’ poem, was 11.306. Literally translated, this reads:
Even if, after Alexandria, you leave for Antioch, and, after Syria, you then arrive in Italy, no powerful man will marry you; for ever in hope, you will hop from city to city.
This put me in mind straightaway of another, much more modern Alexandrian poet, C.P. Cavafy, and, in particular, his famous poem, ‘The City’. I therefore decided to filter my response to Palladas  through the prism of Cavafy, using the latter modern poet’s trademark direct reported speech form.  But I also added a coda, a response from the woman quoted:

 All the Same
You might say: ‘Time to look for another spot,
Kiss goodbye to Alexandria, head for Antioch
Or Italy – to find a man who is rich and powerful
(Or both).’ But just as you are unmarriageable
In this one city, so you will always be alone
As you hop from bed to bed, time zone to time zone.
Yes, I’m the woman who’s had her fair ration –
From A to A, I have run the full gamut of men:
The losers, the liars, the cheats without shame.
Here’s a flash: world over, they’re all the same.

With thanks to the conference organisers – Professor Edith Hall of Kings College, London and Professor Chris Carey and Dr Maria Kanellou of University College, London – for their generous hospitality.

Next time: versions of Palladas’ new poems


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