Home » Reviews » Language Before Language: The Grid, Eli Payne Mandel, Carcanet Poetry 2023

Language Before Language: The Grid, Eli Payne Mandel, Carcanet Poetry 2023

Reviewed by Josephine Balmer

‘The gift of tongues’, writes Eli Payne Mandel in his exhilarating first collection, The Grid, ‘is as fickle as lightning.’ In a series of eclectic verse – prose poems, concrete poems, ekphrases, as well as classical versions and translations – Mandel examines how lost literary cultures, and their languages, might be recovered. Through his ruminations on the Linear B scholar Alice Kober, as well as his own dialogues with the poetry of Homer, Pindar, Horace and Ovid, among others, he explores not just how we respond to ancient texts but how, in the very attempt of their decipherment, whether successful or not, we must ask ourselves fundamental questions about our relationship with literature and language. How all writers must struggle with meaning, with revision, with articulation itself.


In particular, the first section of the book, ‘The Grid’, concerns the life and career of classical scholar Alice Kober, whose work on the deciphering of Linear B script was until recently overlooked, overshadowed by the discoveries of Michael Ventris a few years after her death in 1950, aged forty-four. It was Ventris who identified that Linear B was a form of Greek but Kober who first recognised it as an inflected language, paving the way for Ventris’s eventual breakthrough. In 186,747 index cards and records – using the back of hymn sheets and receipts during the Second World War when paper was in short supply – Kober classified the known examples of Linear B, mostly inscribed on clay tablets excavated from the Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete by Sir Arthur Evans in the early twentieth century. As Mandel informs us, these were then stored in ‘one cigarette carton after another. Often the individual cards are gridded: together they form a grid too large to piece together.’


In addition, an exhaustive archive, including four notebooks, is now held in the archive of The Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory at the University of Texas at Austin. In 125 short, numbered poems, Mandel scours these records for material, reconstructing an extraordinary life and consciousness, scrap by scrap, from ordinary, commonplace observances:


[41]  Kober was not sentimental or romantic about the lost inhabitants of Crete and their writings. For her there was no labyrinth or minotaur. Calculation, not dream, was the ground of her work. But several times she writes in her letters: “The tablet is injured there, if the photograph shows it correctly.” As if it had a body, and hurt were the property of clay.


Mandel is also skilled in marrying the mundane and the scholarly, as well as the beauty of both known and unknown words:

[56]  In July of 1946, she drove to Mexico with friends. Almost exactly a year later, friends took her and her mother to the beach, where the pair suffered terrific sunburns. Perhaps she thought then of the passage in her dissertation on the colour “honey-yellow” used in Theocritus for a sunburn. The word Theocritus uses for the sunburn itself is haliokauston.


Throughout, Mandel extrapolates whole new worlds from what might at first appear the small banalities of an unmarried middle-aged scholar’s life, infusing everyday incidents with the dense, accumulating layers of past centuries. Most of all, he portrays a compassionate and lyrical representation of the often unsung, yet intensely rewarding, labour of those who might interpret their layers:

[58]  ‘The plotted points are so few and far between they can be arranged in almost any order. They are stars in a sparse sky. We could call it a constellation: Life, comprising the stellar bodies A1, B1, and C3. We could call it a constellation: Silence, comprising the same stellar bodies.’


Similarly, in poem [73] he moves on from astronomy to mathematics:

‘…Her rhetoric belies a secret pliancy, a capacity to yield and re-form. One side of geometry is its ineluctable logic, steely as any prison house. The other side of the board is space, the movement of forms in a plane, shapes falling in and out of existence, angling lines, flux of measure and erasure. Flux of the abacus.’


Mandel’s task is aided by Kober’s sprightly eye and turn of phrase. Editors, she notes in poem [62], ‘ “deserve a special place in heaven; they have a little purgatory right here.” ’Her correspondents, too, give excellent quotes: the archaeologist Sir John Linton Myers, remarking wryly on the lack of written records in the centuries after the destruction of Minoan civilisation, calls Linear B tablets: ‘ “the last year’s vouchers before the catastrophe.” ’ When Kober offers to send a Christmas toy to the son of her Athenian classicist friend, Constantinos Ktistopoulos, not realising he is a young man of twenty, Ktistopoulos replies that “ ‘a light melancholy has shaded the face of my son, when I spoke to him for the toy.” ’


As well as curating extracts from Kobel’s notebooks with wit and precision, Mandel has his own ear for an arresting phrase or analogy. In poem [34], the photographs of Linear B tablets Kober pores over in place of the originals ‘recede, even today, before the enflamed eye of history.’ Noting the lack of early recognition for her abilities, he asserts that she came to the realisation of her erudition ‘as a divining rod to water’. Later, rather than the ‘slim margins of her bargaining with the unknowable’, it is Ventris’s scholarship that scoops the glory for Linear B’s decipherment; ‘the palace of memory’, as Mandel comments, ‘does not record small transactions.’ And when, in an underwhelming obituary for Kober, her former advisor E. Adelaide Hahn praises her ‘ “faithful spade work” ’ on Linear B, Mandel adds dryly: “As if she had dug her own grave.” Ironically Kober herself does not herself appear to have been a fan of poetry: ‘ “A few pages from a Minoan epic would scare me to death,” ’ as Mandel quotes her in poem [97].


Even more innovative than these prose poems are Mandel’s visual concrete pieces, based on Kober’s jottings: strings of seemingly disconnected words, lines overtyped or deliberately blurred. For example, in poem [14], Mandel outlines how, after Kober constructed exhaustive tables of the words, ‘the semantic category of the nouns is triangulated.’ Poem [15] then reads as follows:

                                   bath-tub, etc.

            river;               city                  plant


            animal                                    plant




                                    city(?)             cave                


In poem [113], Mandel describes how, in a slim, handmade book, Kober arranged data ‘in facing pairs’:

‘One side, the plumb line, solution string garlanded with numbers. Rows filled pink, black, gray, blue. Turned on their side they look like skylines.’

The analogy is authenticated by its succeeding cut-up piece in which Mandel’s lines rise up like skyscrapers [114].

Again, poem [97] considers how Kober’s books, like the palace ledgers and debt records of the Linear B tablets themselves, ‘are more accurately waste books, in the financial meaning of the term, … She transacted in transactions. Numbers before words.’ Poem [98] then challenges the reader further, laying text on text until it is completely illegible.

Alongside these radical versions are playful extracts from Kober’s letters (‘ “back to the files for me./and I must run for a train./Otherwise, no news.” ’). Even the coroner’s report on her death surfaces in poem [120]: ‘I HEREBY CERTIFY that (I attended the deceased)*’. But ‘The Grid’ also presents a series of excellent verse translations: Iliad 18 in poem [21], Horace Odes.1.9 in  [48] or Pindar’s Nemean.7 in [74]. These versions underscore how translation itself is an overwriting, and hence a deletion. Mandel’s lyrical version of Horace elaborates:

                           Under the moon,

A bracelet snatched from the wrist.

From the reluctant finger, the ring.


As Mandel’s Pindar bemoans: “Wisdom leads us into the maze of stories/ and then robs us dumb.” Mandel understands how translation stands at the intersection between language and meaning, inference and interpretation. In poem [54], he clarifies further: ‘translation is movement in x and y: arrangement, combination, erasure.’


As a sequence, ‘The Grid’ is erudite, elliptical and intriguing in equal measure. The collection’s other two sections, ‘Screen Memory’ and ‘Letters of Last Resort’, are shorter but similarly absorbing. The former is a mysterious yet exuberant intertextual cocktail of Italian Renaissance painting (‘Bellini’), the Book of Job (‘The Heir’), St Augustine (‘The Earth Shall Run Damp With Sweat’) and Arabic textbooks (‘Al-Kitaab’). Again, these poems are veined with Mandel’s exquisite yet disquieting images: ‘all my letters have been returned sewn shut like eyelids’, he reveals in ‘Gorky Sublivm Tixet’. In the passing world of ‘Overnight Train’, he observes ‘the empty baby carriage, the sleeping giant, the unkind welcome, the field hospital of innocence, the meteor.’ Similarly, in ‘Disappearance’, ‘the stars are a shoal, that soft word meaning the shallows and the fish who glean the deep.’


‘Letters of Last Resort’ returns full circle to ‘The Grid’ and the destruction and collapse of civilised worlds; its title refers to the letters of instruction sent by leaders to nuclear submarine captains to be opened in an emergency. Here a sense of doom hovers throughout; ‘the sky was leaking reason’, laments ‘Letter When The Harvest Is Past, The Summer Is Ended, And We Are Not Saved’. In ‘Letter With Total Recall of The Past’, the earth is ‘burning up over all her skin’. And ‘Letter From The Cities That Are Not Inhabited’ reflects ruefully how ‘The suburbs were like sex while thinking of someone else.’


Again, a playful intertextuality sees Louise Bourgeois rub shoulders with the King James Bible. Or Andrew Marvell and Richard Carew sit side by side with Penelope’s deceitful weaving in Homer’s Odyssey and Cicero quoting Themistocles on the art of memory in ‘Letter of Instruction’: ‘ “I would prefer the art of forgetting. For I remember what I want to forget, and cannot forget the things I would consign to oblivion” ’. Such erudition might initially seem intimidating but Mandel employs his sources with subtlety and care (a list is usefully provided in the end notes, but it is perfectly possible to read – and enjoy – the poems without recognising their references).


Most of all, the sequence’s foreboding tone of unease and impending catastrophe is mediated through the voice of the elegiac poet Ovid, exiled for an unknown crime to the eastern city of Tomis on the Black Sea in 8 CE. In a series of memorable versions of Ovid’s Epistulae Ex Ponto, Mandel details the alienation and isolation of the displaced writer at the edge of his known world;

it’s no wonder then my mind drips away

      as water from snow

as worms drill through an unsound ship

as saltwater chews the cliffs

as scabrous rust gnaws iron

as my heart is eaten without end


As the sequence progresses, Ovid’s alienation becomes our own: ‘when I was happy I sang happy songs’, sighs one ‘Letter From Ovid’, ‘now that I’m sad I sing sad ones’.

But, as Ovid knew, in the face of extinction, all the writer can do is to carry on:

why should I write

what else would I do


The Grid reminds us that literary culture is constantly on the brink of annihilation, whether from ‘brutal’ invading Dorians or the threat of nuclear war; that, throughout history, languages overwrite languages, cultures are built over the ruins of cultures. Mandel has declared himself fascinated by history before history – the civilisations that flourished long before what we now perceive as ‘ancient history’. But how can these prototype writings be recovered and understood? Mandel’s volume argues that the art lies in the attempt; Kober’s ‘limbo of the half-triumphant’, he implies, is also true of poetry itself. As he quotes Kober in poem [72]: ‘ “A scholar’s worst enemy is his own mind…. Facts are slippery things.” ’ But so, as The Grid magnificently illustrates, are words. For Mandel, the Greek of Linear B ‘fits the language like a glove with extra fingers.’ Preserved by ‘Disaster, not wonder’, it is ‘a stutterer veering towards aphasia. Sense shifted through logoclonic repetitions.’ The end product may never live up to the original concept. The reward for creative endeavour is perhaps always failure. The Grid gifts us a hugely original – and highly compelling – study of that heroic failure in all its complex, faded glory.


Josephine Balmer’s latest collection, Ghost Passage (Shearsman), uncovers the voices of fragmentary Roman writing tablets recently excavated in the City of London.





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