The Paths of Survival

– the poetry of history –

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


The First Eastern European Immigrant

As Article 50 is triggered, let us remember just how long European immigrants have been in Britain…


Colchester inscriptionNigel Farage might have been concerned about Romanians moving in next door but, as an inscription from Roman Colchester reveals, eastern European immigrants have been part of the British landscape since the first century A.D.

In 1928 workmen building new garages on the site of the main Roman cemetery in the town uncovered the fragmented funeral stele of Longinus Sdapezematygus, an auxiliaryman from Sardica, the modern Bulgarian city of Sofia. Remarkably the figure’s missing head – possibly hacked off during the revolt of Boudicca in 60/1 – was then discovered over seventy years later in 1996 during a dig by the Colchester Archaeology Group. One of the earliest Roman tombs in Britain, Longinus must have died between the invasion of Claudius in A.D. 43, who established Colchester (Camulodonum) as his initial legionary capital, but before the legion withdrew in 49.

Longinus (3)In his funerary sculpture, Longinus is depicted on his horse with his cavalry chain mail tunic and small round shield, brandishing his spear while a defeated British tribesman cowers beneath his horse’s hooves. The damaged text of the tomb’s inscription translates literally as follows: Longinus, son of Sdapezematygus, duplicarius, of the 1st cavalry squadron of Thracians from the district of Sardica, aged 40, with 15 years service, lies here. His heirs erected this under his will.

Here we learn that Longinus, presumably his adopted Latin name, was a dulpicarius, a ‘double pay’ junior officer, such as a standard bearer or centurion’s deputy; by birth he is from Thrace, a region which covered northern Greece, Turkey and a large part of Bulgaria.

In the following poem, Longinus’s brief inscription has become a fourteen-line sonnet which incorporates other source material about early Roman Britain such as the prized British Agassian hunting dogs described by many ancient sources, as well as the island’s reputation for good quality wool – and oysters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many classical writers also had much to say about the new province’s disappointing weather.

A Thracian Auxiliaryman at Colchester

They never managed to pronounce my name;
as I’m tall, I was always just ‘Longinus’
though my father was Sdapezematygus,
a Thracian, from Sofia. Can’t complain:
I was on double time. The days were dank
but the oysters were good. I bought a cloak
plus a new hunting bitch, Agassia,
with squat little legs, sharp teeth and soft paws
(the wife and kids back home would have loved her).
Fifteen years I served with the cavalry
across the east – Syria, Scythia –
at forty it ends here. Remember me:
I was part of the advance, one of the first.
Your ancestor. My bones still feed this earth.

A New Fragment – And a New Translation: Sappho, The Cologne Fragment

220px-Tithonos_Eos_Louvre_G438_detailWhen a hitherto unknown Sappho papyrus was discovered at the University of Cologne in 2004 – and later published by Martin West in 2005 – there was huge media interest in the ‘new’ Sappho poem. However, as Sappho scholars soon recognised, most of this ‘new’ work was actually another piece of the puzzle from an existing piece of papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, fragment 58. With tattered, disputed text, scholars have had to become inured to the fact that not just their interpretation but their very content might constantly be shifting.

This means, of course, that the text we appear to have now is not the same one I translated for Sappho: Poems and Fragments thirty years ago. Nevertheless, when I was working on my, then much more incomplete poem, I felt a strong affinity to the fragment from the start; it became the one exception to my rule of not filling in the gaps, although I dutifully added a page note to the effect that ‘most of this translation is conjecture’.

Such conjecture was, of course, aided by the poem’s reference to the myth of Tithonus and Eös, the immortal Dawn who gave her lover eternal life but forgot to give him eternal youth until he was transformed into a shrivelled cicada:

…already old age is wrinkling my skin
and my hair is turning from black
to grey; my knees begin to tremble
and my legs no longer carry me…
oh, but once, once we were like young deer
…what can I do?…

                                    …it is not possible
to return to my youth; for even
Eös, the dawn, whose arms are roses,
who brings light to the end of the earth –
found that old age embraced Tithonus,
her immortal lover…
                                      …I know I must die
yet I love the intensity of life
and this, and desire, keep me here in
the brightness and beauty of the sun
[and not with Hades…]

When West’s new, more complete, text appeared in 2005, it was very gratifying to discover that, by coincidence, my conjectures followed this quite closely. If translation is an activity that occupies the realms of inspiration and creativity, as well as the pages of the dictionary, then it was also cheering to find that it embraced serendipity as well. For this reason, when I was recently asked by Peggy Reynolds to provide a version of the West’s new text for Poet in the City’s ‘Sappho…Fragments’ event at the Bloomsbury Theatre London on October 31st, so entwined were the two texts in my mind, they proved harder to disentangle than I might have thought.

In the end, to distinguish this new version from my earlier reconstruction, I decided to use rather more formal, less conversational semantics in English. But despite all efforts, I found it hard to keep to the six couplets of West’s reconstruction without writing prose lines. And so the text was transmuted into an almost-sonnet of fourteen lines. Nevertheless, thirty years – and two millennia later – it still felt as if Sappho was at my shoulder as I wrote:

The gifts of the Muses are violet-threaded,
rare: follow their path, my daughters, pursue
the lyre’s clear-voiced, enthralling song.
Once I, too, was in tender bud. Now old age
is wrinkling my skin and my hair is turning
from black to grey; my heart is weighted,
knees buckle where I danced like a deer.

Yet what else can I do but complain?
To be human is to grow old. They say
Eös, the rosy-fingered dawn, whispered,
of love to Tithonus, whirled him away
to the very edge of the world, beguiled
by his youth and beauty. Yet still he aged,
still he withered, despite his immortal wife.

The Articulation of Grief III: How Personal Should Personal Poetry Be?

dolbyBowlIn this third extract from Piecing Together the Fragments, published last week by OUP, I will be looking at the thorny issue of just how private and personal poetry should be – and how, through translation, this dilemma can be addressed, if not resolved. As in my previous extract, this passage comes from my discussion of my 2004 volume, Chasing Catullus, and examines questions raised by a series of poems written after the death of my niece from cancer.

Throughout these poetic appropriations [in Chasing Catullus],  I felt increasingly uneasy, not just at the exposure of such deeply personal experiences but at the unavoidable issue of the validity of turning such private trauma into literature.

Considering these issues, both personal and professional, I came across a passage from the Republic (398a) in which Plato explains that, while poets would be welcomed if they visited his Utopian city, they would not be allowed to live there: ‘If a man, it seems, who was capable by his cunning of assuming every kind of shape and imitating all things, should arrive in our city, looking to exhibit his work, we should worship him as a holy and wondrous being, but would tell him that we have no man of such a kind in our city, nor is it lawful for any such one to be there. And, having anointed him with myrrh and crowned him with garlands, we would send him away to another city’.

This extract provided a foundation text for a new poem, ‘Cancel the Invite’, elaborating on Plato’s original, stretching it, transgressing it, transforming prose in to poetry. In this last transformation, I was influenced by James Harpur’s 1996 poem ‘The Flight of the Sparrow’, which I had long admired, and which preformed similar metamorphoses on Bede’s image of the brevity of life as a sparrow flying through a mead hall on a dark  night. I also overlaid my text with echoes of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ from Four Quartets, which I had been reading at the time of my niece’s funeral, and which formed another layer of intertextuality, another palimpsest. For instance, lines 21 ff of Eliot’s poem are deliberately recalled in its opening lines. In this way, ‘Cancel the Invite’ provided a dialogue with its preceding poems, questioning whether such personal material should be used as poetic subject-matter, and articulating my own conflict about the issue:

 If you came, if you came this way to our city,
 taking the old road, the salt road, up from the harbour,
 and it’s early days, mid-morning, late September,
 sky an upturned limpet’s shell, flesh-scooped, chalk blue –
  or later, maybe, at dusk in depths of winter,
the sky a pebble dropping to a shore-line pool…
And if you came, if you should slip through our gates
while our guards are down, dealing out their final hands –
Proteus back from exile to walk our boarded streets,
beggar, broken king, virgin trembling on the brink
(for we know you can change face – and heart – at will);
 and if you reached, by chance, our marbled market halls
to find some unclaimed spot, set out your same old wares
we’ve all seen, we’ve all heard too many times before
(and besides, could buy cheaper in any local stores)
then we’d welcome you as a stranger, as a guest,
wash your dusty feet, throw fresh garlands round your neck,
commend your art, revere your turncoat trickster’s skill,
and then, because poets are forbidden here by law –
for we need doctors, surgeons, men to find the cure –
we’d show you, so politely, to the waiting door.

Poems such as these not only translate but interact with their source text, re-enacting as well as voicing otherwise unapproachable or uncomfortable emotions such as grief or guilt. Here, translation becomes a part of the transformed poem’s metaphoric landscape or perhaps, as Charles Tomlinson expresses it, quoting Georges Braque’s Cahiers D’Art: ‘“no longer concerned with metaphor but metamorphoses”.’ As Tomlinson continues, such metamorphosis transforms its object ‘into a less predictable, a more variously multi-faceted image’. I also wanted to see how far the line between translation and poetry would stretch, to use translation in new and different ways, to take it as far as it would possibly go as a creative art form in itself, until translation and original poem became indivisible from the other. As I noted in my preface to the volume, my aim in the collection had been: ‘not only to blur the distinction between original and translation, but to make it unimportant, until the reader – or even the writer – cannot distinguish between the two.’

51BWqT1tOsLYou can find more details and a sample chapter of Piecing Together the Fragments on the OUP website here. Or 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.

For more information on Hazel Dolby’s wonderful calligraphy and artefacts  click here  

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


Classical Versioning and the Articulation of Grief

DP114272In this second taster extract from ‘Piecing Together the Fragments’, I examine the writing of my first collection, Chasing Catullus, published by Bloodaxe Books in 2004, a work which employed classical texts and versioning as a means of approaching family bereavement and grief. It is also a memorial to my niece Rachel as this week sees the seventeenth anniversary of her death. She would have been twenty-five next month.

                 Speaking Through A Text: Ovid’s Many-Headed Hydra
At the same time as exploring new ways of approaching translation and versioning, I was also grasping for a way to deal with personal grief. Just after I finished Classical Women Poets and had began to work on Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate, my sister’s then six-year-old daughter was diagnosed with aggressive stomach cancer, a period which ended tragically with my niece’s death in August 1996. I had recorded these experiences in a notebook as a means of exorcism but had put these writings aside, too painful even for myself to read. But gradually through the dark fog of bereavement, I began to write again in the only way I found that I could: through the prism of classical literature – and its translation. Similarly, it is interesting that classical scholar Thomas Van Nortwick has recorded how his study of Greek literature, particularly Homer, helped him to come to terms with the early death of a beloved nephew. As he asks himself: ‘What can Greek literature teach me about the role of gifts in the life of a spirit?’

These new poems form a diary sequence, comprising Chasing Catullus’s second, central section, which follows, both directly or obliquely, the course of my niece’s illness, its most private or difficult events articulated through the voices of classical myth and literary reference, the vocabulary through which I could begin to the unsayable. As Sullivan notes of Pound’s various literary ventriloquisms: ‘[he] realized that what he wanted to express could only be expressed in that particular way.’ In addition, Elizabeth Dodd has argued that American women poets such as H.D., Elizabeth Bishop and Louise Glück, have worked in a form of ‘personal classicism’, a means to become a woman poet in a male, literary world but at the same time to avoid the confessional tone of Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath…

…The sequence also made use of embedded quotes from classical texts – the quotes Stephen Harrison has termed ‘appropriated’ – in order to articulate a dialogue between source text and original poem. For example, the poem, ‘Cutting the Hydra’, a proverbial expression in classical Greek for attempting an impossible task, addresses a surgeon’s initially confident but, tragically, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to remove my niece’s tumour. Here, the poem’s first stanza is based on Ovid’s account of Hercules’s slaying of the monstrous many-headed serpent, the Hydra (Metamorphoses 9. 67-78). As Hercules’ heroic confidence is deflated, its second stanza returns to my own narrative voice, referencing the later myth of Hercules, killed by his wife Deianira, who gave him a shirt dipped in the Hydra’s poisonous blood:

Cutting the Hydra

He said: “It’s child’s play, the cradle work of Junior days,
labours I’ve performed since I was little more than boy;
so if you think we can be beaten by some snake in grass,
remember, of this seething coil, you are one small part:
true, it breeds on its own death; hack away a head, any
of its many hundred necks, and two improved grow back,
fed on evil, foul branches of the serpent’s tree
but I’m its master – and what I master I destroy.”

Afterwards he couldn’t even look us in the face.
I saw him going home to his own Deianira,
tucking into cutlets, mash, one more gin with bitters,
white coat deflated on its peg, buff suit skinned and shed.

As we have seen, for Pound, such adopted selves were masks or personae, a means of speaking through another text. And in these poems, too, as in many others in the sequence, appropriating these different, classical selves allowed me to communicate the horror of the situation without directly narrating it, providing ‘the profound place to hide’ that Charles Rowan Beye has seen in the field; a slippage of self-construction and self-image, affording a means to be of myself and yet out of the self. As I noted in a 2006 paper for the ‘Self and Identity in Translation’ conference at the University of East Anglia, I needed a form that would allow me to practise deception, if not self-deception, a self-protective mechanism which could shield me from the horror of the experience described. All in all, the reality was too painful, too shocking, and ultimately too private, to be portrayed any other way except through the shifting filter of classical literature, weeding out what was or wasn’t acceptable, what might or might not be palatable, not just for the writer but for the reader too.
                                                                                                                                      Josephine Balmer

You can find more details on Piecing Together the Fragments on the OUP website here. Or pre order it on Amazon here. T51BWqT1tOsLhere is also a small article about it in the current OUP Classical Studies catalogue which you can find here.

Next time: a discussion of the issues surrounding the use of personal experience in art – and how speaking through classical texts might help us to resolve them.

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