How can a writer make the past come alive? Compellingly alive, I mean, so that we feel rubbed up against the rawness of its reality. Historical fiction is often just a collection of tropes: of words and gestures that have been rubbed so smooth that we seem to have seen them in our sleep. Try it: try thinking about the French Revolution or Roman Britain and see what you come up with. Then think about the books and films and television programmes that all so cynically replay the images that come unbidden into your head.
No, making the past live is a different matter. It takes different muscles. One has to exercise the mind more carefully; to allow it to move away from the details that are obvious to the ones that illuminate a life. Listen:
"I watched the scribe struggle
with his long, steep stroke of 'L',
marring his mark, letting stylus drift.
I felt the deep wax part and shift
as it hardened into capital: London."
Perhaps I mean "look" but, either way, what you have here is lived experience brought expertly, and movingly, into the present. Jo Balmer is a classicist – an author who has already published translations of Sappho and Catullus, among others – and what I found, as I read this book, was that I entirely trusted her. "Yes", I kept thinking, "this must have been exactly what this was like." She takes the themes that you'd expect – the universal ones: love, loss and sex and war and death – and quietly and irrevocably imprints them on your memory not in the shape of knowingly clever speculation or even of memorable language (although there's plenty of that) but of lives lived: of clerks and builders and soldiers and mariners and even of animals. (She dons the shape, on one memorable occasion, of a bull on a Roman altar stone.) Language, she states, isn't simply language – it's not there just to play with. It's a "coinage to chime in [the] blood". In other words, we are as made up of language as we are of our bodies and minds. Here, it's a means of attempting resurrection; of exhibiting that radical empathy that enables you to leap inside a person's being. Balmer knows that what matters – what always matters – are the people to whom history occurs; to whom history isn't "history" but the time and place they live in. It's often uncomfortable but it contains the consolation, as she says in the title poem, of kindness; of,
"Those they had loved. All those who had loved them."
Love is the key, I think. "Over whom", as Bertolt Brecht once wrote, "did the Caesars triumph?" Well, they triumphed over the people here; the people whose hopes and fears and furtive thoughts are brought so carefully and vividly to life. And isn't vivid description a form of love? Again: listen.
"We had smiled at his Gallic Greek ('Grallic'
you'd called it): euodes or 'cloying draught',
diamisus which meant a 'bitter taste'
and double-use biprosopum ('two-faced') –
a salve that came in drops or ointment stick
(double the disgust, we might once have laughed)."
Not one life but two, at least, perfectly caught. You're there in the middle of a conversation, using the language and the speaker's attitude to build a picture. Each person feels fully present. Places do too: the sea "a gold-streaked lapis" or a sewer's grease like "soiled, discoloured mother-of-pearl" or rowlocks "barely a finger's breadth above the surge" or, in the quietly accomplished Oxney sonnets, a moon "like a scratched wound". Such imagery brings each place so close you feel that you can touch it. In other words, it isn't just the people that feel alive. Eventually, you start to realise what this collection feels like: an elegy for everything. There are moments when you realise that the poet, too, has suffered her own loss; that she has her own people to mourn. But the beauty of it is that she takes her knowledge of this emotion and she extends it outwards until she seems to be talking to just about everyone. Here and then gone, we are the same – we have exactly the same fate – as those whom this poet cherishes. Our loved ones disappear, and even our places disappear. But "cherish" is exactly the right verb, I think, because Balmer gathers people and places up – she creates them, often, from out of the barest scraps: a writing tablet or the graffitti on a stone memorial – and carves out a new space for them. Each poem is a home; a place where, in that most enlivening of literary paradoxes, imagined people all feel blazingly alive. We can only hope that, when our "achievements are called in requiem", we have a bard as knowledgeable, as empathetic and as expert to sing us awake.
Alan Humm is the editor of One Hand Clapping.