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Jo Balmer: a poem



Make Nothing Happen


Outside Athens, 404 BCE


As the Spartans celebrated hard-fought victory

one of their youths sung a song by Euripides -

lines for the defeated, the dead, the disappeared...

(Plutarch, Life of Lysander, 15)



Half-drunk, half-dazed, half-decided to be jeered,

at the feast I recited enemy verse.


We'd voted to destroy Athens. To scorch

its teeming streets to pasture, grass. Crowd cry

to crow call. The opposite of city.

To enslave them as they'd enslaved others.


But as my song faded like a half-healed ache,

our resolve bruised; revenge bent out of shape.


I watched hardened Spartan hoplites, soldiers,

bow their heads as if in shame, faces scraped

by razored tears. Now all of us concurred:

we could not, in conscience, obliterate

a city that had given us such beauty;

poets to score our accumulated loss.


At last the butchery could stop. No war.

No savagery. No slavery. Poetry

would make nothing happen. What it's for.



This poem was first published in Long Poem Magazine issue 29 (Spring 2023) as part of the sequence "The Blood Road". Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. Her translations of Sappho have been continuously in print since 1984 and in 1989 were shortlisted for the inaugural US Lambda Literary Awards. In 2018, they were reissued in an expanded edition to include newly-discovered fragments (Bloodaxe Books). Her recent collection, The Paths of Survival (Shearsman), was shortlisted for the 2017 London Hellenic Prize. Other works include Letting Go (Agenda Editions, 2017), The Word for Sorrow (Salt, 2007), Chasing Catullus (Bloodaxe, 2004), Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate (Bloodaxe, 2004) and Classical Women Poets (Bloodaxe, 1996). She has also published a study of classical translation and versioning, Piecing Together the Fragments (OUP, 2013). Her latest publication, Ghost Passage, was published by Shearsman in 2022.

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