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. 

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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