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A look at Cavafy, Aeschylus and the poetry of Josephine Balmer

Letting Go and The Paths of Survival belong together: beautiful, modest in language and device, yet far from modest in their concentration and achievement. 

Most books of poetry are collections written over a specific period, brought together under a title; few are conceived with a single theme, in effect as a single work. That is not the case with Josephine Balmer’s latest publications: two complex, unified constructions, both concerned with loss and preservation – one of a person, the other of a major text. They are two halves of one piece.

The loss in Letting Go is of the poet’s mother, Darlene, who died in 2010, and is celebrated in 30 sonnets, introduced by the poem “Things We Leave Behind”, written after the Greek poet CP Cavafy. Cavafy is an appropriate starting place: the tone is restrained but clear, quietly passionate and sad. The sonnets, too, are broadly in the key of Cavafy. They speak plainly but gracefully, recounting incidents and events in a close relationship, but without ever being in the least sentimental.

It is precisely the restraint that moves the reader; the rhymes and half-rhymes generally understated yet piercing. Allusions, echoes and ghostings from Virgil, Aeschylus, Thucydides, Homer, Hesiod, Livy, Ibycus and Plato are never ostentatious but integrated as part of a natural world where they form a landscape through which the figure of the lost mother can move without pretension. By inhabiting that landscape simply as a human being, she becomes the concern of the great figures of the past: they elevate her, she humanises them. In “Suppliants” Balmer ghosts Aeschylus:

They had laid her out like a warrior,
placed a hand towel under slippered feet,
a doormat for head, shielded by her hair.
I knelt beside her, too soon yet to weep,
and like a suppliant I took her hand…

The gravity lent by Aeschylus is shared by Darlene. It is simple and moving.

It is also Aeschylus that forms the link to Balmer’s second book, The Paths of Survival, a larger, less personal enterprise – “larger” in that it covers more than 2,000 years in the history of Aeschylus’s lost play, Myrmidons. Very little of Aeschylus survives at all and only tiny fragments of Myrmidons remain as preserved, quoted or referred to over time. In this sense it represents all lost texts, all destructions by fire, fury, theft, or neglect. “Still I am drawn to it like breath to glass./That ache of absence, wrench of nothingness,/stark lacunae we all must someday face” begins “Proem: Final Sentence” before moving on, in “The Librarians’ Power”, to the National Library of Baghdad, burned and looted in 2003.

From there the book proceeds in short sections, each prefaced by a translated fragment of Myrmidons. Titles group poems under a specific roles: Custodians, Excavators, Editors, Scavengers, Translators through to Bureaucrats, Copyists and Comedians. Ever further back in time they go before arriving at Tragedian – where Aeschylus, as voiced by Balmer, reconsiders his play – and, finally, at the fragmentary remaining text of Myrmidons itself, as translated by the author. Every poem is precisely placed and annotated; each has its historical and functional position.

This careful arrangement is not, however, a purely scholarly process. The poems, though narrated by almost 30 characters, are in fact the same voice, speaking at the same level, with the same use of rhyme, assonance, and plain speech, all lightly touched, yet tragic in their cumulative effect. It is not the timbre of the voice but the angle of vision that changes as each character speaks of his relation to the text.

The text is at the heart of The Paths of Survival: it is the missing space – the “stark lacuna” as the proem has it – that haunts the whole book and keeps beating through it. In that space we hear of the love between Achilles and Patroclus. In Aeschylus’s original fragments the tender relationship between the warriers is considered illicit at certain periods and merely alluded to, albeit in a dense and sensual manner. Take, for example, this italicised line in “Erotic Tales”, which adopts the voice of Lucian in the year 200:

…Even Aeschylus, known for weighty verse dipped his nib in the ambidextrous: 
such sacred communion between the thighs 
sighed his Achilles over pert backside o top my list of things bi-curious.

The play might have said more about it, sung and spun more, but we can’t be certain. All we know is that something survives the vast historical ebbs and tides, and that is the nature of human survival too. Myrmidons, the play, is the book’s direct object of love and desire but as with Letting Go, the love in the text is between two people.

These books belong together: beautiful, modest in language and device, yet far from modest in their concentration and achievement. 

Letting Go
Josephine Balmer
Agenda Editions, 48pp, £10

The Paths of Survival
Josephine Balmer
Shearsman Books, 93pp, £9.95

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist