Saturday, August 15, 2015

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Sappho translated by Anne Carson

This marvelous collection of the extant fragments of verse attributed to Sappho is a glorious spur to the imagination. Sappho was a lyricist, a poet, a musician. It is unknown whether or not she was literate in reading and writing, but her work was collected in writing, and reprinted, but little has survived the centuries. Only one full poem, the ode to Aphrodite, survives whole at twenty-eight lines.

Bust inscribed, literally Sapfo Eresia, meaning Sappho of Eresos. Roman copy of a Greek original of the 5th century BC
attribution of photo: "P.Köln XI 429" by Masur - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Sappho was known and lauded throughout the ancient world for the beauty of her poems accompanied by the lyre. She wrote nuptial songs mainly, it seems, for the tenor of the fragments suggest the happy circumstance of a marriage. The Encyclopedia Britannica suggests that Sappho taught young women the arts of courtesanship, seduction, marriage which may (I speculate here) be one reason why she was so universally adored and admired.

Can we all agree that to be a brilliant courtesan requires great intelligence: a deep understanding and acceptance of human nature and desire, and enormous self-control and discipline? Add to this her apparently unparalleled skill as a poet—alas! We do not have enough of her work surviving to adequately judge, but the fragments set us to dreaming and are an undeniable spur to writers and lyricists alike. We will have to trust her contemporaries and sup upon lines like
Eros shook my
mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees
you burn me

Anne Carson has chosen to reprint fragments attributed to Sappho, sometimes single words, separated by brackets to indicate lost fragments. The blank spaces are fruitful places for meditation on what was once there. Sometimes the few words jump from the page
for as long as you want
] ] ]
]goatherd ]longing ]sweat
] ] ]
]roses ]
Does your mind race? And this
colored with saffron
purple robe
]Dawn with gold sandals

attribution of fragment photo: "P.Köln XI 429" by Masur - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -

If many of the song or poem fragments are songs composed for weddings, just that concept brings a host of associations and an understanding of Sappho’s history. There is more to learn about her as an individual (she had three brothers, was married with a child, was exiled to Sicily in her twenties it is thought) but not much more. It is thought she lived from 610 B.C. to 570 B.C. A collection of her work was published during the Middle Ages in nine volumes but has not survived. Our imagination will have to suffice.

That the work of an individual has so inflamed the public imagination for such a long time is cause enough for wonder. One fragment shows an awareness of her fame
someone will remember us
I say
even in another time
Sappho was a “honeyvoiced…mythweaver,”
]nectar poured from
]with hands Persuasion

The surviving fragments are a spur to the creative mind. When becoming stuck, writers could do much worse than flip through this book for its inspiration. To my mind Sappho addresses writer's block:
for it is not right in a house of the Muses
that there be a lament
this would not become us

Apologies to Anne Carson and publisher AA Knopf for not being able to reproduce the high quality typesetting and lovely spacing in this book. If this review is at all intriguing to you, try to lay your hands on a printed copy from 2002. The formatting is as informative as the print.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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