The ancient playwright Aeschylus once wrote a tragedy about the star-crossed lovers, Achilles and Patroclus. This play was called Myrmidons and, excepting a couple of fragments, it is now lost to us. We know that it followed Achilles when he was refusing to fight for the Greeks during the Trojan War, a decision that ultimately leads to the death of his beloved. The fragments we do have are filled with lust, love, betrayal, anger, hatred and despair. There are so many works from antiquity that I wish we still had access to, but I particularly feel the loss of this one. Thankfully, in The Paths of Survival, Josephine Balmer brings this work to life in an innovative and evocative way.
This collection of poems starts in the present day, at the Sackler Library in Oxford where Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2256 currently resides. Amongst these scraps of papyrus are some lines that are believed to be when Achilles’ is lamenting over the dead body of Patroclus.
[…For soon I will follow you do]wn
With each poem, Balmer moves backwards in time, tracing Aeschylus’ play through the ages until we eventually meet Aeschylus himself. She explores the fragility of written words and the impact of each person who interacts with a text. There is censorship and tragic loss. We meet translators and librarians and clerks and readers. We meet people who find comfort in the explicitly homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. We meet those who want to erase that aspect of this tale. We explore how each reader approaches a text in a way that is wholly unique to themselves.
I had the honour of attending a reading by Joesphine Balmer where she read some of these poems and spoke about her process of writing this collection. I knew from this talk that I would love this collection, but I was not quite prepared for the emotional impact that it had on me. It is a poignant study of how the written word is preserved, destroyed, and manipulated over time. I devoured it in one sitting and then read it again.
We may not have the entirety of Myrmidons, but with this collection Balmer has breathed new life into this lost tragedy. In the absence of words, we can read so much into the gaps that have been left.