The Pagan’s Tip

by Josephine Balmer

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

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