The Paths of Survival

– the poetry of history –

Tag: 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.

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

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)

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….
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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

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.

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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.

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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…

 

Blot
(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))

 

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Articulating Grief II: Cavafy’s Things

cp-cavafyIn C.P. Cavafy’s 1919 poem ‘The Afternoon Sun’, the Greek Alexandrian poet revisits by chance a shabby room which he had once shared with a lover. As in so much of Cavafy’s verse, the poem recreates the past with an erotic intensity, imbuing everyday items – a chair, a jug, and, of course, a bed – with a sense of yearning. The poem had always been a favourite of mine but recently it took on a new significance; my husband and I had decided to buy a new dining table and so arranged for a local charity to collect the old one we had used for over twenty years to sell in their high street shop. Sometime later a cafe opened up next door to the shop and, on visiting it, we recognised our old table among its eclectic collection of furniture  at once.This, in itself, reminded me of the ‘worn-out old things’ in ‘The Afternoon Sun’. But the poem’s closing lines, in which Cavafy recalls his final meeting with his lover, also had a new, more personal resonance; my mother had died very suddenly and, by chance, Cavafy’s parting  also closely echoed the last time I had seen her. I had found it impossible to write about my grief in any way but, through a new version of Cavafy’s Greek text, I found myself able to articulate it for the first time. Now my father and I sit at our old table for coffee every Tuesday morning, and remember.

                                    Cavafy’s Things
            (after The Afternoon Sun and i.m. Darlene Balmer)

We knew it at once: the faded grooves
touched by the afternoon sun.
The crack where we’d left it too long
 in the window, splitting the wood in two.
The candle wax we’d scrubbed but not removed.

 Ah,  yes, this table, it was our family.

 We’d seen it last in the collection van,
shrouded by its upturned chairs.
Now here it was in the newly-opened café
(had it been an office for commercial affairs?
Or maybe a solicitors? No, the bakers…),
lined round in pine, tarnished, second-hand;
a resting-place for dust-blanched builders
slumped over strong tea, the full English,
as dark and heady as funeral incense.

They must be around somewhere,
those worn-out old things…

 On the other side, the place where she laughed
every birthday, all those festive lunches;
in the centre, the faint circle of a wine glass
set down to carry in warmed plates or dishes,
indelible now, an ever-bleeding blemish.

 That afternoon, at 4 o’clock, we said goodbye
for one week only….. I thought I’d see her.
And then that week became forever.

This poem was first published in Agenda, Vol 47,2, Spring 2013. For more information click here

 

Translation and the Rehabilitation of Forgotten Ancient Poetry

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My new book on translation and poetry, Piecing Together the Fragments: Translating Classical Verse, Creating Contemporary Poetry, will be published by Oxford University Press in September. Here is the first short taster, an extract from the section on my 1996 volume Classical Women Poets (published by Bloodaxe Books). This explores how, in conjunction with classical scholarship, translation can reanimate and rehabilitate lost fragments by forgotten ancient poets, here by Hedyle, a woman poet from Athens:

            

A Snatch of Sea Air: Hedyle’s ‘Scylla’
Hedyle, the only extant woman poet from Athens, was harder to track down, despite the city’s far more mainstream literary tradition. As Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz has noted of classical Athens: ‘there were times and places more hospitable to women writers.’ Similarly, when collecting poets for her 1983 anthology, ‘Women Poets of the World’, Joanna Bankier discovered that women writers seem to flourish in ‘decentralised cultures’ but vanished under ‘a strong centralised power’ where poetry became a prestigious activity. Thought to date from the third century BC, a snatch of Hedyle’s mythological poem, ‘Scylla’, had originally been quoted by Athenaeus (7.297A) around AD 200.

But so obscure was the piece that Jane Synder’s indispensible ‘The Woman and the Lyre’ made only passing reference to it, although Diane Rayor included a literal translation in her 1991 anthology, ‘Sappho’s Lyre’, in which one Glaucus presents love gifts of ‘cockleshells from the Erythraian reef’ and ‘still unfledged halcyon chicks’ to a sea-nymph, Scylla. Through Rayor’s excellent referencing, I tracked down an edited text in ‘Supplementum Hellenisticum’. This points to a fascinating re-imagining of the myth of Homer’s six-headed sea-monster, Scylla, here seen in her youth as a beautiful girl, loved unrequitedly by the merman, Glaucus.

Hedyle’s approach appears to contrast starkly with Ovid’s version centuries later in his ‘Metamorphoses’, where Glaucus turns to the Homeric sorceress Circe for help but, falling in love with him herself, Circe jealously transforms her rival Scylla into a monster (13.904ff,14.66ff). But where Ovid’s Glaucus is overcome by sexual passion, wooing Scylla only with an account of his own troubles, Hedyle’s protagonist is tender and hesitant, furthering his suit with lover’s gifts. Meanwhile, in an engaging modern reimagining by Vicki Feaver for Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun’s influential 1994 project, ‘After Ovid: New Metamorphoses’, Scylla is a hapless bystander to Circe, who articulates her own revenge: ‘Because he wouldn’t enter me/I made her unenterable – Scylla/the nymph who fled from the god…/I wanted.’

If such texts were hard to come by, textual commentaries were practically non-existent, apart from Diane Rayor’s brief but helpful notes to her translation, in which she commented on the suitability of Glaucus’s sea-themed gifts. But, as I began to work on the piece, I found further artifice in Hedyle’s list; not just the sea imagery of corals and shells – also associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love – but the kingfisher chicks, given by lovers in antiquity as symbols of undying love, after the myth of Alcyone who threw herself into the sea when her husband Ceyx was drowned (in the Scylla myth the rejected Glaucus also drowns himself). Kingfishers had other associations, too, namely the Greek-derived phrase ‘halcyon days’, the fourteen winter days when the birds built their nests in the calm before the storm. I incorporated this reading in to my version, stretching Hedyle’s sparse five and a half lines into two stanzas.

In the Greek, it is unclear who is the subject of the fragment’s opening lines. In my version, I transformed these into a first-person speech by Glaucus in order to foreground his lover’s emotion. This could then be contrasted to and distanced from the poet’s authorial voice which ends the extract. To me, the piece seemed a strange and beautiful fragment, concentrated, like the work of many of the women poets, around absence and loss. As I noted in my introductory comments in ‘Classical Women Poets’, in a few, brief tantalising lines, ‘Hedyle weaves a complex and ironic association of faith and betrayal, hope and disappointment, love and grief’:

Scylla

‘I brought you shells, Scylla, from clear coral reefs
and kingfisher chicks still learning how to fly –
those halcyon days to come. All these I gave
without faith, without hope.’

                                             At Glaucus’s grief
Sirens wept, his fellow dwellers of the deep;
and they swam in sorrow from their rocky shore
by simmering Etna….

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

Next time: an exploration of the ways in which classical works and their translation can provide a voice through which a poet might say the unsayable.

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