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Stripped-Down Sappho

More of the Tenth Muse shows through the fragments in an astonishing new translation.

John D’Agata

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho
Anne Carson
Alfred A. Knopf, $27.50 (cloth)

8 Her real name is Ψαπφοι—Psappho, in English—much more waterlogged and harder-edged than the downy s and faded f’s we commonly use to pronounce it. You’ve got to stutter when pronouncing Sappho’s real name, and spit. She is vigorous, enigmatic, not-so-pretty, many-syllabled. She is not as easy to “get” as she initially appears. Yet as one scholar recently has pointed out, “To exist in fragments and in Greek is a doubly perilous claim on the attention of our time.” Thus the many sexy spackle-jobs her chipped and pitted poems have endured these past millennia. Thus the myths about her life we’ve invented over the years in order to fill in history’s deep and unseemly gaps.

What we know for certain about Sappho is that she was born sometime at the end of the seventh century B.C.E., that she died sometime at the start of the sixth, and that she lived on the island of Lesbos, in a town called Mytilene, just off the west coast of Turkey. In Sappho’s time, Socrates has not yet been born. Plato, also, at this time has not yet been born. Aristotle is unborn; Alexander is unborn; Herodotus is unborn; Pericles is unborn; Thucydides is unborn; Aristophanes is unborn; Pythagoras is unborn; Euripides is unborn. Unborn is the tradition of Delphic oracles in Greece, whose first temple won’t be built for another fifty years. Unborn is the golden age of sculpture in Greece, which means statues in Sappho’s favorite garden are still as rigid as those in Egypt, their feet still planted seamlessly in a plinth. Unborn, too, according to recent theories in ancient paleography, is Greek writing itself—even the Iliad and the Odyssey won’t be set into print for another hundred years—which means that Sappho herself is probably illiterate, that she probably first improvises her poems while she sings, that each poem likely has several versions therefore, and that consequently there is nowhere in the world these poems exist. Nowhere, at least, but in the sounds swooshing the air in Sappho’s own head that once whooshed the poet privately to sleep.

It is in this spirit that Anne Carson’s restrained treatment of Sappho’s fragments in If Not, Winter seems to me most astonishing. Widely known in her own work for big chucks of appendices, nervous multiple epigrams, and introductions to introductions of cycles of poems or essays, Carson here provides just a four-page preface to a book that itself stretches to nearly 400 pages. And in the brief subsequent glossary of names, she is similarly concise:

Aristotle: philosopher
. . .
Krete: Crete
. . .
Abanthis: woman about whom nothing is known

In Carson’s translations, too, clearly the significance of Sappho’s accidental lacunae is as important as what’s actually there. The text is at times a blizzard of brackets—

]
]
]
]youth
]
]
]
]
]
]

—each of which represents a word or line or whole stanza that’s disappeared. She writes:

I emphasize the distinction between brackets and no brackets because it will affect your reading experience, if you allow it. Brackets are exciting. Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp—brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.

Think of Carson’s brackets in If Not, Winter as a free space of lyrical adventure and the translation becomes immediately less a document of broken texts than an experiment in trust and imagination, as if each bracket were a flag that Carson was raising to signal us to run up and take over the baton. In her decision to give us less in her translation of Sappho, Carson has actually made the text ultimately more generous, and in this way has granted readers the pleasure of imagining their own versions of Sappho.

But if it were as easy as being hands-off with the texts, why all the fuss about Sappho translations over the years? There have been over 450 in English since the early eighteenth century; look for Catullus—Sappho’s Roman counterpart—and you’ll find no more than a hundred. Even during Catullus’s own life, in the first century C.E., it was widely rumored that his sweetheart “Lesbia”, the subject of his poems, was not actually the poet’s gentlemanly pseudonym for his mistress who was married to a high-ranking Roman, but rather the pseudonym he gave his single greatest inspiration: the “Tenth Muse,” as she was called—the lady poet from Lesbos. In medieval French literature, Christine de Pisan lists Sappho in The Book of the City of Ladies as one of the eighteen proofs that women’s minds are just as capable as men’s. In early Renaissance art, Raphael includes Sappho in his painting of Parnassus in a Vatican salon—the only mortal he admits into his famous convocation. In the English Victorian ladies journal The Pall Mall Gazette, Sappho tops the list of results in a poll asking readers to list whom they thought to be the twelve greatest women in world history. And in 1922, at the pinnacle of modern English poetry, T.S. Eliot offered Sappho the surest stamp of his approval by appropriating in his own work her fragment 104:

At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.

“She is a mortal marvel,” wrote Antipater of Sidon, who then went on to catalogue the Seven Wonders of the World.

Sappho fascinates us because she is there at the beginning of literature, rooted as deeply into the history of human imagination as any other writer. But she also fascinates us because unlike Homer and Archilochus, whose works essentially remain intact, she is a slate upon which anything can be written, about whom anything can be imagined, and from whom anything, therefore, is possible. Of her 189 fragments, twenty are only one word long, thirteen are only two words long, thirty-three are under five words long, and fifty-nine are under ten. There is in fact so little we know about the poet that upon approaching her work we must at least first acknowledge the extraordinary predicament of having neither text nor context with which to read it.

And after acknowledging that, we have a decision to make. Should the fragments be reconstructed? Or should the fragments be left alone?

Compare Carson’s uncommonly faithful translation of the four spare words comprising Sappho’s fragment 145—

do not move stones

—with the poet Mary Barnard’s version of the same four words in her 1958 best-selling collection entitled Sappho: A New Translation:

if you are squeamish don’t prod the
beach rubble

Or, compare Carson’s translation of Sappho’s fragment 42—

their heart grew cold
they let their wings down

—with Guy Davenport’s interpretation of the same fragment in his otherwise dazzling 1976 collection, 7 Greeks:

I
With quickened heart they hovered,
Fluttered, and lit with folding wings,
The doves. My heart is cold.

II
Their wings folded down,
My heart grows chill.

And finally, in comparison to Carson’s translation of the virtual debris of fragment 92—

]
]
]
]
robe
and
colored with saffron
purple robe
cloaks
beautiful
]
purple
rugs
]
]

—how should we read Willis Barnstone’s version of the same papyrus scrap in his 1998 Sun and Moon collection, Sappho Poems, in which he saw in those eleven words not only an entire eight stanza poem, but even a title?

Recalling a Letter Atthis Wrote Me
“Sappho, if you don’t come out of your room,
I swear I’ll stop loving you.
O rise and free your lovely strength
from the bed and shine on us.
Take off your Chian nightgown,
and like a pure lily by a spring
bathe in the water. Our Kleïs
will bring a saffron blouse and violet
tunic from your chest. We will place
a clean mantle on you, and crown
your hair with flowers. So come, darling,
with your beauty that maddens us,
and you, Praxinoa, roast the nuts
for our breakfast. One of the gods
is good to us, for on this day, you,
Sappho, most beautiful of women,
will come with us to your white city
of Mytilene, like a mother
among her daughters.” Dearest Atthis,
after all these words to us, to me,
can you now forget all these days?

“Sappho appears naked in Greek,” Barnstone explains in the introduction to his book, “so to read her abroad she requires an attractive outfit in English.”

How, then, to dress her? “Make reasonable guesses at syntactic connections between isolated letters, words, and phrases in order to let Sappho sing,” he says.

Sequins, false eyelashes, big heels, a wig.

After all, “once one is committed to the goal of remaining faithful to the aesthetic quality of the original—to making a poem a poem,” Barnstone argues, “—then Sappho becomes one of the most pleasant persons in the world to read.”

Then Sappho becomes. It is these three words that are the real clincher in translating Sappho. What’s at stake here is the same as in any art restoration. Should the walls of Knossos have been rebuilt? Should the Sistine Ceiling have been left murky? Should Anselm Kiefer’s paintings be allowed to blister and flake and finally rot off their canvases—just as the artist intended they do—even though museums have insured the paintings against such demise?

“I like to think that the more I stand out of the way,” Anne Carson says in the introduction to her translation, “the more Sappho shows through.” This is the Anne Carson we fell in love with years ago: the scholar so enamored of her subject that merely gesturing toward it with a grin was enough to hook the rest of us. This is the Anne Carson of Eros the Bittersweet and Plainwater and Glass, Irony and God—before all her friends from antiquity were dressed up like goofy soap opera stars. Whether you think Carson is soiling contemporary English literature with her own recent work or shining a great light on it, If Not, Winter is a selfless, faithful, and boldly delicate achievement in which one of the more controversial writers of the moment has simply blown off some dust from Sappho’s crumbling oeuvre, turned it toward the rest of us, and said, Look.<


John D’Agata
is author of the Halls of Fame, a book of essays, and editor of the forthcoming anthology The Next American Essay, a collection of experimental nonfiction.

Originally published in the October/November 2002 issue of Boston Review



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