Wednesday, October 20, 2010


I've been reading a translation of the scattered fragments of Sappho's poetry that remain to the modern world, since my thesis mentor (who is a wonderful person) recommended Sappho to me, along with a volume of commentary on her. He said my poems reminded him of Sappho's, and that he thought I would like her. He was right, of course.

Many of the poems are striking. Some of them are particularly evocative because they are damaged. The manuscripts were burned or broken or otherwise maimed, so the translations have brackets everywhere--all along the left side, for instance, or sprinkled liberally throughout, as though the speaker were too shy to say everything out loud. Here is Guy Davenport's rendition of one fragment (§85):
I can
may be for me
throws back the light
[hand]some face
There is so much mystery in the ellipsis, like the mystery in a haiku. Reading these fragmented poems reminds me of trying to form an impression of person by overhearing snippets of their conversation, and by glimpsing them as they go about their day, but never sitting down with them to hear their story. Through the fragments, we see Sappho moving back and forth through life. We hear her cries, as though hearing a neighbor through the wall. We see her spinning and leaping, but only through the gaps in the fence. We can't see the pattern of her steps, and we can't ask her why she is celebrating. But we can see that she is dancing.

And then there are a few poems without any holes torn through their text (I think the introduction said we only have three complete poems of Sappho's), which are like brief, brutally honest conversations with a stranger who will tell you exactly how she is feeling right now, but doesn't trust you to actually care. Or they are like conversations with a dear friend who leaves out all the explanations and cuts to the chase, because she knows you know exactly what she is talking about.

I love them all. Some of them scare me, some of them charm me. Some of them tell stories that I don't have the courage to tell for myself. §65 from Davenport:
Percussion, salt and honey,
A quivering in the thighs;
He shakes me all over again,
Eros who cannot be thrown,
Who stalks on all fours
Like a beast.

Eros makes me shiver again
Strengthless in the knees,
Eros gall and honey,
Snake-sly, invincible.
How clearly she speaks! And yet her gods are not my gods, and she doesn't speak my language. She is a wild sister I can never meet.

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