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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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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

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