Josephine Balmer

Josephine Balmer

Josephine Balmer’s collections include The Word for Sorrow (Salt, 2009 & 2013) and Chasing Catullus (Bloodaxe, 2004 & 2016). Her translations include Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate (2004), Classical Women Poets (1996) and Sappho: Poems & Fragments (1984 & 1992), all published by Bloodaxe.

Josephine Balmer has written widely on poetry and translation for publications such as the New Statesman, the Observer, the TLS, Poetry London, the FT, the Independent on Sunday and the Times, for which she sets the daily Word Watch and weekly Literary Quiz. She was Reviews Editor of Modern Poetry in Translation from 2004-2009 and is presently a judge of The Guardian Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation, as well as an editorial advisor to the journal Agenda. Her study of translation and poetic versioning, Piecing Together the Fragments, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013.

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The Clerk’s Crusade

(Constantinople, 12 th April 1204)

The first thing we noticed was mortar
crumbling, sand trickling from a stone.
Even rats, the Captain shrugged, get restless
under siege, gnawed by our same hunger.
The guards returned to their next throw
of dice. And I slunk back to Library desk.

We could not know, did not even guess
our city was already falling, already ash.

Next day we all saw it, the slab shift
and slowly tilt. We stood transfixed
as a single block of wall rolled back
and chasm opened where it collapsed;
ten withered fingers gripped the edge,
then Crusader helmet on Crusader head.
Our captain gave orders. On cue we fled.

That night Byzantium was melted down.
Everything they could move, they took.
All else was toppled into steaming pots,
vast statues shrunk to stumps of bronze,
for each piece of tessera, another life lost.

Myself, I looted what they overlooked.

As Latin bishops stripped our churches
of jewels, I stuffed my splattered jerkin
with a few foxed and battered books:
Photius’s Lexicon, Lucian, Athenaeus.
Here was no Holy War but Christian
against Christian, West against East.
Better the Saracens. They had belief.

I ran back through the streets, slipping
on spilt blood, fresh excrement, filth.
Far off, a woman sobbed, out of reach.
By the tower, the gates were sticking,
stemmed by mounds of rotting corpses
stacked up behind like seasoned meat.
So I squeezed out through the breach,
a conqueror in reverse. For in Nicaea
or the monasteries of Thessalonica,
we would soon found another empire.

Our nobles, too, crept away like thieves
as the Latins jeered, waving inkpots,
quills – the weapons not of warriors
but meek scholars, they hissed.

Let them mock.

Where they had cruelty, we had culture.
Where they had greed, we had Greek.

Poetry in this post: © Josephine Balmer
Published with the permission of Josephine Balmer