Kent, 553 CE
... here I must record a story which seems more like fable than truth. And yet
it cannot be passed over…
(Procopius, History of Wars, 8.47)
Late at night, they hear banging at their doors,
a voice, indistinct, calling them to task.
They do not shrink. They wake, walk to the shore
confused by their compulsion, or who asks,
compelled to act just the same. They find boats
like their own if not quite. Somehow other.
As they lift out the oars they feel the load
like lead ballast, a haul of passengers.
They see soaked planks lying low in the depths
of the waters, lapped to the very edge
of the rowlocks – barely a finger's breadth
above the surge – but no more, no one else.
Within a long hour they return to Kent,
Thanatos, isle of the dead. That tare weight
lifts. They hear nothing, no steps disembark
yet the same voice urges them to take charge
of these lost souls: all the ghosts of France, Spain,
Italy – and Britain. As each descends
their achievements are called in requiem.
Their kindness. Their partners, their parents' names.
Those they had loved. All those who had loved them.
Girl's jewellery, Museum of London, present day
(for Rachel and Tre)
More than twenty years on and the old wound
still reopens. Among the uncast die
and never-cashed chips of dimmed Roman rooms,
a cache of semi-precious stones, half-size,
breath-frail, for a girl of maybe seven
or eight – the grave, unfastened offerings
of another family now, too, gone:
the hollows of bracelets, her tiny ring
poised above like a miniature halo;
an unclasped thread of pearls, scarred amethysts
aching for the frame of her eager face.
I know each heart-stab gap. I nod hello
as if to lapsed acquaintance: this homeless
restless love that waits like an unfilled space.
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). The poems above are taken from Jo's forthcoming publication, Ghost Passage, which will be published by Shearsman in 2022.