Letting Go: heart versus head
by Josephine Balmer
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:
Every day measures the same as the next…
A few months later my father spread out
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:
I 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.