A bilingual edition of the work of the Greek poet Sappho, in a new translation by Anne Carson. Sappho lived on the island of Lesbos from about 630 b.c. She was a musical genius who devoted her life to composing and performing songs. Of the nine books of lyrics Sappho is said to have composed, none of the music is extant and only one poem has survived complete. All the rest are fragments. InIf Not, WinterCarson presents all of Sappho’s fragments in Greek and in English. Brackets and space give the reader a sense of what is absent as well as what is present on the papyrus. Carson’s translation illuminates Sappho’s reflections on love, desire, marriage, exile, cushions, bees, old age, shame, time, chickpeas and many other aspects of the human situation.
I think my love for this book is due in equal measure to the stunningly beautiful translation of the parts of the poems that remain, and the spaces of silence where the papyrus has failed. In longer poems, those spaces function as beats of pure rhythm that our minds can fill with meaning or, if they choose, experience solely as pools of quiet. My favorite long poem is an awesome example of this:
I simply want to be dead.
Weeping she left me
with many tears and said this:
Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.
And I answered her:
Rejoice, go and
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.
But if not, I want
to remind you.
]and beautiful times we had.
For many crowns of violets
]at my side you put on
and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.
And with sweet oil
you anointed yourself
and on a soft bed
you would let loose your longing
and neither any [ ] nor any
holy place nor
was there from which we were absent
no grove [ ] no dance
To me, this poem would not be nearly so heart-wrenchingly beautiful if it weren't for the spaces of quiet that the poem travels into toward its end. It mirrors so wonderfully the process of comforting a weeping person, which at first is full of talking and crying, much movement of hands and words, and then gradually settles into a quieter, less verbal state. The repetition in the last, fragmentary stanza ("no grove / no dance / no sound"), with the spaces of quiet rhythm between the phrases, is like the touch of a soft hand stroking the back of a person whose weeping has trailed off into silence - or maybe a few brave hiccups. And its effectiveness gains even more from the implication that this isn't the end of the poem: that last bracket implies a continuation of the remembering, of the comforting, but it has been rendered without words by time. It seems to me that most acts of comforting share this quality: the slow meandering into quiet and physical, rather than verbal, communication, and the lack of a stark end-point. That last bracket, where the act of comforting continues, seems to me to mark an indefinite continuation, the analog of sitting quietly with someone for a space of time before one of you suggests taking a walk, or getting a cup of tea, or looks at your watch and says gently that you really should be going.
The shorter fragments have their own special beauty. The fact that they are fragments somehow lends a freedom to them, or me as I read them, so that they can exist as gorgeous pin-points of language, without any expectation of a more "complete" message. Paradoxically, this sometimes allows an image or message to come across with a clarity that probably would have been impossible if I'd been reading a non-fragentary text.
And I on a soft pillow
will lay down my limbs.
Or this one:
]for when I look at you
]such a Hermione
]and to yellowhaired Helen I liken you
]among mortal women, know this
]from every care
]you could release me
]to last all night long
Racy! I love the singular image, alone on a page:
"gathering flowers so very delicate a girl"
Some of the pieces don't even feel fragmentary, just very succinct, like this one:
with anger spreading in the chest
to guard against a vainly barking tongue
I could copy out this entire book with unmitigated glee. I treasure up phrases from it like balms to heal any wound. If Not, Winter is more dog-eared and sticky-note-marked than any other book of poetry I own; perhaps more so than ANY other book I own except my trusty Norton Anthologies of English Literature. Something in my perpetual lust for Sappho via Carson is intangible and difficult to explain, but, like Jesse "that damned lesbian" Helms, I know it when I see it. And, presumably unlike former Senator Helms, I keep coming back for more.
"Into desire shall I come."
"Open out the grace of your eyes."
"you will go your way among dim shapes. Having been breathed out."
"I don't know what to do
two states of mind in me"
— FRAGMENT 51
"you came and I was crazy for you
and you cooled my mind that burned with longing"
— FRAGMENT 48
Throughout the course of reading this, I tend to forget what's missing due to their sheer brilliance alone ("mingled with all kinds of colors", "both you and my servant Eros", "may you sleep on the breast of your delicate friend"). I'd like to think the lost / destroyed papyri have been sieved; a matrimony with the earth. Oh how much more in their wholeness? Currently, this book is resting on my bed and I sleep beside it. All these nights I leaf through it, more so when sleep would not come, comforting myself with pictures they form in my head; an intimate commune I built for Sappho and me. What an experience.
•If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, tr. Anne Carson, Virago 2002
•Stung With Love: Poems and Fragments, tr. Aaron Poochigian, Penguin 2015
SAPPHICS FOR SAPPHO
Each ellipsis teases, inviting dreams – dreams
Formed from torn
Lonely scrawls of sigmas and psis that sing, still,
Sticky with meaning.
Fragments all. What's left is the one percent, rich,
Rare. When Alexandria burned, the whole world
Choked to breathe the smoke of the ninety-nine. Now,
Desperate to get you
Back, we trawl millennia-old unearthed dumps,
Hunting out your clotted Aeolic strung lines.
Lone hendecasyllables' sounds that awed Greeks
After you quoted.
Questing, reading, marvelling – so we search on,
Poets seeking answers to questions all lost
Lovers ask. Your answers still reach us, drenched, fresh
From the Aegean.
A LIFE IN FRAGMENTS
Towards the end of the second century AD, in the last flickering light of classical Greece, a philosopher called Maximus, in a city on the Levantine coast, wrote a grammatical textbook about figures of speech. Casting around in old books for examples of how poets have described love, he writes: ‘Diotima says that Love flourishes when he has abundance but dies when he is in need: Sappho combined these ideas and called Love bitter-sweet and “ἀλγεσίδωρον”.’
So we have this one word that Sappho wrote, some eight centuries before Maximus was born. This is what we mean when we talk about her poetry existing in ‘fragments’. The Canadian poet Anne Carson translates this example as:
Very often these remnants are quoted with no regard to any poetic quality, but rather in illustration of some grammatical point. Apollonius Dyscolus, for instance, writing again some time in the 100s AD, included a throwaway remark on variant dialects during an essay on pronouns. ‘The Aeolians,’ he said, ‘spell ὅς [‘his, hers, its’] with digamma in all cases and genders, as in Sappho's τὸν ϝὸν παῖδα κάλει.’ Again Carson's translation gives us just the phrase in question:
she summons her son
Carson's translation of Sappho's oeuvre is well subtitled ‘Fragments of Sappho’, since most of what's left is of this nature. It's certainly nice to have everything collected in this way in English, though it must be admitted that her book sometimes seems more an exercise in completionism than in poetic expression. That said, as other reviewers have pointed out, reading pages and pages of these deracinated terms (‘holder…crossable…I might go…downrushing’) can succeed in generating a certain hypnotic, Zen-like appeal.
Nevertheless, such things lose a lot by being read in isolation; the as it were archaeological pleasure of digging them out of their original context, in works of grammar or rhetoric, is completely absent. For that, the Loeb edition translated by David A. Campbell is far preferable, for all that he has no pretensions to being a poet, just because you get Sappho delivered in that context of other writers. The fonts used for the Greek are also much more readable in the Loeb. (The Carson edition does include the original Greek, and points for that – though there are some strange editorial…choices? mistakes? – such as printing ς for σ in all positions.)
MUSIC AND LYRICS
To the Ancient Greeks, Homer was simply ‘The Poet’ – and ‘The Poetess’ was Sappho. She was held in extraordinarily high esteem, which makes it the more frustrating that so much of her has been lost: ninety-nine percent, according to some experts. Only one or two poems remain that can be said to be more or less complete.
Her poetry is mainly ‘lyric’, that is, designed to be sung while strumming along on the lyre. Sappho was, in modern terms, a singer-songwriter; she was known to be an extremely talented musician, designing a new kind of lyre and perhaps even inventing the plectrum. When we read her poetry now, we have to remember that we're looking at something like a shredded collection of Bob Dylan or Georges Brassens lyrics, with no idea of how their meaning would have interacted with the music.
But however important the lost melodies, we do know that she was revered for the beauty of her phrasing. This is something translators struggle with. Fragment 146, a proverb about not wanting to take the bad with the good, is rendered literally by Campbell as ‘I want neither the honey nor the bee’ and by Carson, ‘Neither for me honey nor the honey bee’ – which is better, but consider the alliterative dazzle of the original:
μήτε μοι μέλι μήτε μέλισσα
[mēte moi meli mēte melissa]
Reading the Greek, even if you don't understand what any of the words mean, will often get you halfway there with Sappho. Say it out loud and you'll get a tingle, as it starts to dawn on you what all the fuss might have been about.
But the rest of the job has to be done by translators. The Loeb edition will not help you here: its prose translations are only a crib to help you study the original. Carson's approach is slightly conflicted. She quotes approvingly a well-known statement from Walter Benjamin to the effect that a translation should ‘find that intended effect…which produces in it the echo of the original’, i.e. that one should translate ideas and feelings rather than words. But she also claims to be trying to use ‘where possible the same order of words and thoughts as Sappho did’, which is the sort of thing that makes me instantly suspicious.
Here's her version of Fragment 2, which is one of the more complete poems we have, scratched on to a broken piece of pottery which has miraculously survived from the second century AD. The first stanza (an invocation to Aphrodite) is probably missing, but the next two run like this:
here to me from Krete to this holy temple
where is your graceful grove
of apple trees and altars smoking
And it in cold water makes a clear sound through
apple branches and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves
sleep comes dropping.
This is not bad. I think the word order is unnecessarily foreign at times, but it does sound good and Carson even includes a few of Sappho's famous hendecasyllabic lines – though they are not true ‘Sapphic’ verses, a very strict form which is not well adapted to English (as you may be able to tell from my attempt at the top of this review).
Aaron Poochigian, in a selected edition for Penguin Classics, takes a different approach. ‘Sappho did not compose free verse,’ he chides, perhaps with one eye on Carson, ‘and free-verse translations, however faithful they may be to her words, betray her poems by their very nature.’ Poochigian's version of the stanzas above goes like this:
Leave Crete and sweep to this blest temple
Where apple-orchard's elegance
Is yours, and smouldering altars, ample
Here under boughs a bracing spring
Percolates, roses without number
Umber the earth and, rustling,
The leaves drip slumber.
I think that's pretty great. It takes much more liberties with Sappho's actual words but, to the extent that it produces a sensual thrill in English, it more faithfully reproduces the effect that Sappho had on her original audience. At least, to me it does. Poochigian's selection, called Stung with Love, is much shorter than the other two I read, but a very good encapsulation of her qualities. It also has by far the best introduction, a brilliant essay which puts Sappho in her context extremely well. And because it's the most recently published, it's also able to include the magic new Sappho poem discovered in 2013, written on a scrap of papyrus used to stuff a mummy.
BIGGER THAN A BIG MAN
‘Someone will remember us / I say / even in another time.’ Another fragment. The irony of this one upset me at first, because she should have survived in far greater quantities than she did. But even so, the thrill of hearing the voice of a woman who lived six centuries before Christ was enough to catch my breath over and over again. Generally speaking, women in antiquity are pretty silent. But Sappho isn't, and her influence, despite the meagre remains we have, is ginormous.
It might sound hyperbolic to claim that all modern love poetry is inherited from Sappho, but in fact there's a very real sense in which that's true – so great was her reputation among Classical writers and the Europeans who, in turn, studied them, that it's quite possible to trace a direct line from Sappho, through Catullus, to the Romantic poets and from them to contemporary pop lyrics. Every song about the pain of unrequited love owes something to Sappho's Fragment 31, for example – ideas now so clichéd that we forget they have an ancestry at all. That's just natural, surely – just the way people speak? But no, it isn't natural, it's Sappho. She's part of our inheritance, part of our language. She's under our tongue.
rather I have a quiet mind
Carson's translations here are brilliant. Sappho comes to life, simply. The fragmentary nature of her catalogue is not as frustrating as one might think. Carson beautifully renders them on the page, and the lacunae become a part of