Ghost Passage by Josephine Balmer, Shearsman Books 2022: A Country Without Names by Martin Anderson, Shearsman Books 2022
Reviewed by Liam Guilar
For fifty thousand US dollars you can have your dog cloned. It costs a little less for your cat and a lot more for your horse1. In the lifetime of someone reading this, the option will be extended, legally or otherwise, to humans. But even if science advances and it becomes possible to take the bones from a first century London grave, the clone will not have the original’s memories, language, or world view.
Unless time travel becomes a reality, if you want to hear the anonymous dead speak, you will have to rely on the informed speculation of writers. In Ghost Passage, Josephine Balmer takes as her DNA the inscriptions on wood and stone from Roman Britain and clones the voices of those first Londoners. In A Country Without Names, Martin Anderson recreates voices from a wider geographic and historic range to drive an argument about ‘History’.
Ghost Passage is divided into three sequences: ‘In Wood’, ‘Through Clay’, ‘On Stone’. In the first two, the poems take their starting point from wooden tablets from Roman London discovered at the Bloomberg excavations, and from stone inscriptions from Roman Britain. The third, a sonnet sequence, responds to inscriptions on stone from Oxney. If the sequences are given coherence by the material they respond to, the first two create a chronological trajectory from the first ‘Roman’ writer in London, to the last Latin inscriptions on stone in the twilight of Roman Britain.
For nineteen hundred years in Britain, to be educated was to know Latin. Here, at the beginning, are the first writers of Latin in London, astonishingly within a decade of the invasion.
Horace declared that poetry should instruct and delight. Balmer’s poems do this. They work as stand-alone poems to be enjoyed by some improbable reader with no interest in the past; as evocative reconstructions of voices, but they also offer an informed, speculative view of the inhabitants of Roman London.
It’s instructive to compare how the historian and the poet use identical material. Richard Hingley describes the earliest datable writing tablet: …
from Tibullus, the freedman of Venustus, dated 8 January AD 57, was a formal acknowledgement that he owed a trader called Gratus, the Freedman of Spurius, a debt of 105 denarii in respect of ‘Merchandise that had been sold and delivered’.2
For the historian, Tibullus is a potential source of answers to a line of enquiry. Balmer brings him to life. In her poem, ‘In the Second Consulship of Nero’, he is justifying his actions. He has a history, hopes, and a context:
I knew it was a gamble, rash even,
But the year was fresh, the month of Janus-
the god of openings, gateways passages.
We didn’t choose to come. We were baggage-
stateless, nameless – of our former master
(who’d half read the poet I’m called after). (p.18)
This new London is a place of opportunity and risk. Tibullus hears ‘the ceaseless tap tap tap of builder’s tools/countered by scratch scratch scratch of IOUs.’ (p. 18)
All the poems exhibit the same technical control, a subtle use of rhythm to suggest a speaking voice, a lightly-handled rhyme, each word placed where it feels as though it should be. In the final sequence Balmer works variations on the sonnet so that it never sounds as though she is indulging in a formal exercise for the sake of it.
While ‘Roman Britain’ always sounds blandly homogenous, the Empire and its outposts were multi-cultural and multi ‘ethnic’. One of the delights of this collection is the variety of speakers. The technical control works as a vehicle for an impressive range of voices and tones. Men, women, freed slaves, grumbling soldiers, battle-scarred veterans, homesick and lovesick migrants, famous names and names that have only survived scratched on a bit of wood or stone.
In ‘Too Far’, Agricola the Roman governor is on campaign in Scotland:
I had stepped over the edge of the known
world and was standing in the meadows
of fading stars, of grass flayed by the breeze,
caught in the nets of skeletal wildflower seeds. (p.34)
In ‘The Case of the Missing Mules’, an anonymous speaker:
Confused? Believe me, I’ve hardly started.
Now Taurus swears he can’t make recompense
for the missing mules, not in three harvests.
So here’s the burning question we should ask:
does London really need another ass? (p.36)
There are speakers who sound as though they would belong in any street market in London at any stage of its history: robust, humorous, echoing the verbal wit of the Music halls, making delightfully bad puns.
The variety is also a reminder that London, like Britain, has always been a place of migrants. ‘The First European’ (p.16), like so many who followed, is known by a nickname ‘Longinus’, / Lofty’ since ‘They never managed to pronounce my name’. There are soldiers from Syria, and Gaul, there are homesick merchants who remember Athens and priests of Isis. How strange it must have been for those incomers.
At the Temple of Isis.
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. (p. 41)
The last sequence, ‘On Stone (Oxney Sonnets)’, responds to inscriptions in and around Oxney. The poems personalise history; making their point without preaching, or moralising, dropping the pebble in the pond of the reader’s consciousness and moving on.
In ‘A Few Feet’, two war dead are buried close together in Od Romney Churchyard. Both were nineteen when they died, but one died in 1919 and the other in 1944.
As in the mess they stretch out, ankles crossed,
arms behind heads, exchanging fags, pictures
of sweethearts, and blotted, thumb-marked letters.
Or plan that swift one in The Rose & Crown
while words hang like stopped dandelion clocks
and the next war waits, just a few feet on. (p. 70)
Time travel, when it comes, will be horribly expensive, mentally disturbing and physically dangerous. For the price of Ghost Passage you can wander the streets of Roman London and eavesdrop from the safety of your own home. The Roman city, familiar yet so very different, comes alive in a swirl of voices.
While also recreating voices from the past, Martin Anderson’s approach to history is very different to Balmer’s. History, taken as a whole,
is a dark field ploughed
again and again,
harvest we cannot atone
for. Ghost acreages
tilled by invisible hands. (p.102)
or History is
…a handful of tired pieties, predilections,
animosities of attachment of grasper
and grasped. (p.108)
History is something ‘we’ should atone for, but can’t.
A Country without Names offers a conspectus of human activity from its earliest imagined days and the formation of agrarian state sedentism to our own day. Its tesserae, gathered from beyond the boundaries of a single country or culture, constitute a mosaic in which might be gleaned all the fury and fatuity of the pursuit of that gilded phantasmagoria of a just and beneficent state. (back cover)
The first sentence evokes David Jones. Readers of Jones’ epic poem The Anathemata will experience the disorientation caused by Jones’ refusal to specify who is speaking, when or where they are, or even what has instigated their speech. When his reconstituted ‘Grail Mass’ was published recently3, it was striking how different the experience of reading Jones’ poem became when speakers were given names and a dramatic context. The difference between the two choices: of nameless unidentified, uncontextualized speech, and dramatically contextualised speech, is in evidence throughout A Country Without Names. Why any poet chooses the first in a long poem is a mystery to me.
My initial response to Anderson’s poetic can be summed up by my reaction to these lines:
Birds cross the sky.
us as we lift our heads to watch
them. They depart
for a place unspecified
undetermined. A country
without names. (p. 84)
Real birds have names, and whether migrating or going home to roost, their destinations are specific to a place in a country that always has a name.
The book contains several long poems and sequences, and in many there is a stylistic refusal to give readers information to orientate themselves within the poem. Someone is speaking somewhere somewhen. There is a heavy reliance on unattributed pronouns, which not only stand as subject for sentences but for whole poems.
There is a fondness for the first-person plural, which at times sounds like Eliot in ‘Four Quartets’:
On the road we did not follow.
In the field we did not plough.
At the quay from which we never departed. (p. 20)4
Because there is nothing in the poem to tell the reader who ‘we’ are or why what ‘we’ didn’t do should be significant, it’s hard to care.5
Not all the poems are like this. There are three ‘Chinese poems’, which are perhaps the most striking in the book: ‘Under Jiu-yi Shan’, ’Road of Dust’ and ‘When the Quinces Begin to Ripen’. Although the notes identify who is speaking, the poems themselves are self-sufficient. A mood is evoked through the careful description of external features.
In the wheel’s mouldering nave, on
the dust-thronged axletree, we hear
the smoking world revolve. The crack
of it, day after day, in each ice-dark rut. (p.70)
The rage of the speaker in this poem is specific to a time and context and its expression would be at home in Balmer’s Londinium. The Couriers of Chu would ‘if they had to,/fill a bag of flowers with excrement/and proclaim that it smells fragrant.’ (p.74)
If the lack of orientating detail weakens the effect of some individual poems, its stylistic significance changes when the book is considered as a sequence, if not a long poem, made up of named sections.
Any collection develops internal resonance simply because the poems are in proximity, but here there is a genuine architecture holding the whole together. If achieving internal coherence is the problem that haunts the non-narrative long poem or sequence, Anderson solves it by linking all the poems. Read this way, the stylistic refusal to specify context allows the individual poems to become part of an evocative, if not always coherent or believable, whole. The repetitions become thematic, and the nameless country with its vague history becomes all and any countries.
The first long poem in the book, ‘Road to the North’, now acts as thematic ground for the collection.
The nameless /I/ is visited by the ghost of his father and other members of ‘his regiment’. The dead recall military service in foreign countries, and while there are clues as to where and when this service might be, nothing is specified and there is a pervasive sense of colonial injustice perpetuated by ‘uniformed assassins’. They have returned to offer advice and confess their guilt. In the last section of the poem, the speaker stands before his father’s grave, offering a general condemnation of society.
When the dead father offers cultural criticism from the grave his pronouncements have a dramatic context and force even if his advice, on reflection, is strange:
[…] “Put no faith in good
works. They only paper over the cracks. It’s here”, pointing to
his chest, “work’s done. Here alone. Trust no one’s word.
But when they act, weigh stated intent with consequence
– to see if they are one. (p.17)
But when the anonymous /I/ starts passing judgement on society, the effect is dissipated by that first person plural. Who are these people who ‘never look back’?
[…] Victims of a corrosive insecurity,
we sail off into the future never looking
back; unable to ascertain, alienated
from repetition, a rhythm, a pattern, a music
woven into the air and the earth and
heart which beats in accordance with it. (p.19)
The judgement is undermined by the vagueness in the military detail, and the shift from dramatically grounded speech to generalisation. But as the corner stone of the collection, it grounds what follows. The first and last poems deal with homecoming; the idea of leaving home, wanting to return, and dealing with the problems of return run through the book.
Images, phrases and ideas recur, stitching the whole cloth together. This ‘country without names’ is evoked by snow and dust; by the recurring idea of a pattern, undiscerned, sought after, broken, prevailing, interrupted; by roads followed, often reluctantly, with men dying on roads, men buried on roads; by war and its misery; by corrupt officials, with people sleeping in doorways, on the run from the devastated, smouldering cities which are such a feature of the landscape. The poems coalesce to produce an impressionistic collage that builds a totalising version of global history.
Impressive as it is, A Country Without Names leaves the reader with at least two questions to ponder. Can you enjoy the poems if you are unconvinced by the limited version of history they insist on? There is no kindness, compassion, selflessness. There are no honest hard-working people, only predators and prey, and everyone is guilty.
Inherited cultural guilt has become the secular replacement for the doctrine of Original Sin. But if you’re reluctant to accept guilt for something people you never met did centuries before you were born, would you be converted by a version of history which fails to make distinctions or deal in particulars?
How you feel about those nameless birds probably goes a long way to answering both questions.
1 https://www.sinogene.org/faq. (last accessed 23. 04.2022)
2 (Hingley, Richard. (2018) Londinium A Biography, Bloomsbury Academic.
3 Goldpaugh, T and Callison, J (eds) (2019). David Jones’ The Grail Mass and Other Work. Bloomsbury Academic.
4 ‘Footfalls echo in the memory/down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door we never opened.’ ‘Burnt Norton’ (Section 1, lines 11-13).