JOSEPHINE BALMER’s recent collection, The Paths of Survival (Shearsman),was short-listed 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 (2004) and Classical Women Poets (1996). Her translations of Sappho were recently reissued in an expanded edition to include newly-discovered fragments (Bloodaxe, 2018). She has published a study of classical translation and versioning, Piecing Together the Fragments (OUP, 2013)

New Roman

Writing tablet, Walbrook, London, 61 CE

ABCDEFGHIKL

MNOPQRST…

In a small charred shack we learn our lessons.

Through the smoke I can smell sorrel, ramsons,

blackthorn blossom drifting across like ash

as the shouts of soldiers shatter our hush

and wagons of the dead still roll on past.

We do not want this world, the old language:

destruction, put to fire, revolt, flight, death.

Our task is to etch a new alphabet –

new letters, new tools to rebuild our homes,

gardens for us children, games to play, schools.

We’ll smooth the jagged edge of dialect

and salve its gaping wounds in majuscule.

A-B-C: the scorched march of New Roman

turning blackened wood into cold white stone.

Thief

Writing tablet, Walbrook, London, 69 CE

for Attius the thief, at Rochester…

I knew it the first time I saw him.

A chill November morning, the sun

sharpening the room we’d stumbled

back to the night before; his small bed

at one end, a shelf for cracked Samian,

worn chair piled with clothes. The way

he peeled the stiff tunic from my body

murmuring my name as if it was his

to take. A sacred enchantment. A curse.

As if he’d always believed I’d come.

Yes, I knew it then. All was over. Lost.

Outside, the world spun. Emperors

changed by the hour. Our governors

fled. Now time was a breath suspended

between the dawn cries of forum traders

and rhythmic chants of recalled soldiers

falling away as the day bled to its end.

On the roof the tiles hissed with rain

while we made love over and over again.

Then one morning he said he was leaving.

Out in the market it was trying to snow.

Our sanctuary, too, had ice in the air:

he talked of Rochester, a new legion.

Rochester. The name was like poison.

I lay in bed all day trying to read, alone:

Ovid, Catullus, the passion of Myrmidons:

my love remember the nights we shared

I saw his eyes, flecked with fiery topaz,

inhaled the scent of his hop-soaked skin.

Through the walls, someone coughed

or shuffled across the creaky floor above.

I read on. The city was empty. A husk.

Attius, you thief, come back to London.

Return it to me, the heart you have stolen.

At the Temple of Isis

Inscribed clay jug, Southwark, London, 90 CE

We meet to drink and remember Egypt.

We talk of the journey west, how our ship

docked first at Delos: ‘Welcome to Greece’

the crew said. And I wept, an Alexandrian

who knew she had come home. At Emporion

the sand was as unblemished as our priests’

lustral robes, its sea a gold-streaked lapis.

But we left Spain for this filthy, sluggish

northern river. We enthroned our goddess

by its tainted banks, carving out cisterns

to decant foul waters into pure white flagons.

On street corners we chant transgressions.

Our neighbours avoid us. No one listens.

As dusk falls we wait for waking visions –

one day, in dreams, She will find her way.

We pray, we sing, we celebrate Her feasts.

This city thrums with rhythms of the east.

In London at the Temple of Isis….

We will press our faith into its soft clay.

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