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Jo Balmer: a poem

©Research & Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham and the Provost & Fellows of Eton College.

The Fingers

(Grave amulet, late period, Egypt)

As if stemming tears or shushing regrets,

blowing kisses for a lover's scurried exit,

they would lay those ashen, obsidian fingers

on the incision wound. And now my father

was embalmed, shrunken into his best suit,

outsizing the years he'd no longer dispute.

Three weeks ago, abruptly, he had forgotten

how to swallow. Slowly the hunger lessened

as we watched him drain away, diminish:

flesh, skin, sinew, even, at the last, speech.

Somehow he waved two bony fingers at us,

at first in jest, still cursing, still mischievous.

And then a prince on the brink of abdication,

a rogue priest bestowing final benediction.

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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