Monday, August 3, 2020

If Not, Winter (Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson)

Source of book: I own this.

When I saw this hardback in excellent shape at a library sale, I snapped it up. I mean, what’s not to like? All of Sappho’s known fragments (which is all we have of her poetry, alas), by a translator with a keen ear for poetry, with both the Greek and English presented in a way to illustrate the layout of the page, and thus create a sense of space and absence. I certainly wasn’t about to pass it up. 

Reading through the collection, I was struck with a tremendous sense of loss. There are moments of beauty shining through, but most of what she wrote is gone forever. And that is achingly sad. In fact, the loss of so much of the writings of the ancient world is depressing. Between library burnings by religious fundamentalists, collateral damages from political wars, the intentional forgetting of “pagan” writings during the Middle Ages, and the ravages of time and decay, we now have only a small fraction of what once existed. One appealing thing about the Christian concept of eternal life is the chance to visit the eternal library and read all the lost authors. That would be heaven to me, at least.

The oldest known portrayal of Sappho.

Like all "portraits," it is an artist's conception, as there are no known true portraits of her.

Sappho gets a certain amount of lurid attention, because a few of her poems seem to be addressed romantically to women, she was believed to have had close relationships with women, and a whole long history of legend has attached itself to her and her home island of Lesbos, to the point where our words for female same-sex eros have come from her. (Sapphic and Lesbian.) (Side note here: in an alternate universe, Lesbos would have been more famous for Aristotle’s time spent studying sponges, and we would call biologists “lesbians.”) I suppose this is a potential fate for all poets. Certainly, I know too many people who name-check Shakespeare or Maya Angelou but who clearly have never actually read anything by them, and have no poetic sense. 

First and foremost, Sappho was a poet. Her surviving poems are beautiful and evocative, and even the fragments consisting of a few words contain music. Speaking of that, poetry as spoken, rather than sung, word is a modern idea. Like all Greek poetry, Sappho’s poems were meant to be sung. 

I greatly enjoyed reading what I could, even if I wish there were more. Here are some lines that stood out to me. 


Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot

And some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing

On the black earth. But I say it is 

What you love. 

This one is also lovely: 


He seems to me equal to goods that man

Whoever he is who opposite you

Sits and listens close

    To your sweet speaking


And lovely laughing--oh it 

Puts the heart in my chest on wings

For when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking

    Is left in me


No: tongue breaks and thin

Fire is racing under skin

And in eyes no sigh and drumming

    Fills ears


And cold sweat holds me and shaking

Grips me all, greener than grass

I am and dead--or almost

    I seem to me. 

The poem goes on in this case, but we have only a single word of the rest. Even the smaller fragments can be beautiful, like this one


Stars around the beautiful moon

Hide back their luminous form 

Whenever all full she shines

    On the earth



Or this one:


For the man who is beautiful is beautiful to see

But the good man will at once also beautiful be. 

Or these paired similies:


As the sweetapple reddens on a high branch

    High on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot--

No, not forgot: were unable to reach.


Like the hyacinth in the mountains that shepherd men

With their feet trample down and on the ground the purple flower

There are many fragments that make me burn with curiosity. What was the original context? Who is the speaker? What might it have meant to the original audience? 


Do I still yearn for my virginity?

There are a few short references to virginity, so it must have been the topic of at least one longer poem - perhaps more. And what does this one mean in its original context?


    But I am not someone who likes to wound

Rather I have a quiet mind.

Another personal one which struck me was this one, which is true in the deepest sense:


With anger spreading in the chest

To guard against a vainly barking tongue

Also fascinating is this one, which is a blessing to be sure:


May you sleep on the breast of your delicate friend.

Or how about these two, which look as if they may come from the same poem. Carson tries to duplicate how they appear on the page. 


Here (once again)


            Leaving the gold


Here now

        Tender Graces

            And Muses with beautiful hair

And one final one, prophetic, perhaps:


Someone will remember us

            I say

            Even in another time

These are just glimpses, fragments, shadows of what once was. And they are beautiful. Anne Carson’s versions of ancient literature are so lovely, I must say. (We saw her version of Antigone last year, before everything shut down.) I suspect I will have to read more of her works. Her version of Sappho is delightful, and Sappho’s writing is delicate and elegant and passionate. This book is worth owning. 

An example of the format for one of the fragments. 

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