Josephine Balmer's 'The Paths of Survival'.

I’ve been rereading, ‘The Paths of Survival’ since it arrived. It is such an enjoyable, thought-provoking book.  It also looks good. Cover design and blurb are exemplary.  

 A book length sequence of poems, each poem identified in place and time. The sequence begins with one of the the book’s few anonymous speakers, standing in front of a glass case in a museum, looking at a fragment of Aeschylus’ lost play Myrmidons, a scandalous piece of work which celebrated Achilles’ love for Patroclus. The sequence then moves backwards through an imagined history of the text as the editors, translators, copyists, book lovers and Aeschylus himself speak, stepping out of the shadows at the point where the text intersects with their lives.

It’s an impressive feat of imaginative reconstruction, this bringing to life a fragment of text. The voices lead back to a heavily footnoted reconstruction of what little survives of the play.  At the back of the book, ‘Historical Notes and Sources’ provide a short note on each poem, identifying speakers and contexts. Between the play and the notes a final quote…I have been silent too long. The play is not the end, or beginning of the sequence, the play gave shape to something that existed before it.

I have to admit that part of my enthusiasm for this book is that it’s about books and language and I recognize myself in the situation of the first speaker.

Still I am drawn to it like breath to glass.
That ache of absence, wrench of nothingness,
Stark lacunae we all must someday face.

I imagine its letters freshly seared
A scribe sighing over the ebbing tape

                        (Proem: Final Sentence.p.11))

In my case I was standing in front of the Exeter Book, one of only four books containing Old English poetry to survive from 6 centuries of Anglo-Saxon England.  I was in the cathedral library, with the librarian hovering nervously in case I broke the glass, tucked the book under my arm and had me an escape out the windows.

It’s impossible not to imagine the scribe who wrote it, or the incidents and accidents of its history that lead to its survival, when so much else has perished.

Those vague thoughts are brought into focus by Balmer’s poems. They give human form to somethings as abstract as the love of books that allowed for their careful transmission and survival, for the lovers of words who scrawled a favorite line or two on the back of other documents, and for the hatred of ideas that lead to their burning, as well as the casual destruction in which they were ‘collateral damage’.

Each speaker participates in the chain of accidents, sometimes unaware of the significance of their actions.  Librarians, antiquarians and book lovers have their obvious reasons, but lovers who find in the fragments words to inspire them, scholars who are horrified by the content, people who hate ideas, paid copyists bored, hurrying so he can get to the brothel, and the flight crew of the 2nd world war bomber, one of the most anonymous of the voices, that records ‘Targets; both destroyed. Stray objects hit; one’ all participated.  

One strand running through the voices is an absolute belief in the value of the written word.  

                              Books are

The twisted paths of our past.
This is who we were and what we are.

(The Pagan’s Tip p. 43)

No books and we are condemned to memory and the immediacy of a physically present speaker.  In ‘The Librarian’s Power’ subtitled (The National Library, Baghdad, 2003) with its stark opening line,  ‘We carried what we could to safety’ the librarians have to cajole the locals into letting them use ‘their one precious generator’. Asked why they are struggling to save books when so many people were dying, they replied:

We could only say that, if not flesh,
here were dividing cells, bare blocks,
of collective memory. Conscience.

The vast record of all our knowledge
and of our faith. An ancient Quran,
the House of Wisdom we had built;
the learning we alone had salvaged
and then protected for the Greeks--.

Culture and civilisation are fragile. Culture is not an abstraction, some rough beast that slouched out of the Fairy Queen to lock us in the prison house of language. Culture is the sum total of people and their actions and Balmer’s voices give testimony to this. History includes the casual destruction of texts and people, and the knowledge that intolerance and stupidity are not new inventions:

We’ll storm their prized libraries
strip the dwindling shelves bare.
Who needs poetry or philosophy
When you have faith and orthodoxy

(The Christians’ Cheek. P.42)

Survival requires human agency. And often a bloody-minded refusal to accept defeat. After describing the sack of Constantinople, the clerk ends his witness:

                                    Let them mock.

Where they had cruelty, we had culture.
Where they had greed, we had Greek.

(The Clerk’s Crusade. P.32)

There is a different greed though, and one that is celebrated here, the greed for knowing which is a form of lust.

Back home. I caressed my acquisitions,
tenderly; afraid their soft skin might tear.
I had no lovers. I knew no passion
Except for this, for words. My life’s breath. Air.

            (Hoard. p. 30)


I’ve quoted so much to show the voices. The blurb calls them dramatic monologues, but that sounds too formal and substantial. They are more like fragments of speeches from an unwritten or lost play.

Balmer’s craft is enjoyably subtle; the variations between poems are small but significant.  An unobtrusive rhyme scheme varying and sometimes absent, sometimes a barely noticeable patterning of sounds. There’s nothing pyrotechnic to obstruct the speaking voice.

The intelligence lies in the architecture and the control, which is where I think it always should be.  The speakers are arranged in groups, each group described by a line or phrase from the play. Each group providing a comment on the line as the line comments on them. The sequence is organized by the text it responds to.

If the subject sounds esoteric: “the survival of a fragment of a play by some dead Greek Dude’ the poems aren’t.  The individual speakers are too interesting in themselves. And it’s a thought provoking book. It’s a rare modern example of the suitably classical Horace’s belief that poetry should ‘Delight and Instruct’.  Read it for the pleasure of the voices and learn along the way.  

You could give ‘The Paths of survival’ to any intelligent reader, to someone who doesn’t normally bother with poetry, and they would enjoy it. Then the next time they buy a Penguin Classic, or one of the Oxford World’s Classics, they might stop and wonder how Herodotus or Sophocles made it to paperback.