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Fragments of Sappho

By Geoff Wisner

The Greek poet Sappho, who lived on the island of Lesbos from around 630 BC, was a singer and songwriter who wrote nine volumes of verse lyrics. Of all this work, only one poem has survived intact. Yet she is remembered more than two millennia later.

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sapphois a handsomely produced book published by Knopf in 2002. In it, the author and poet Anne Carson translates all of Sappho’s work, beginning with the single complete poem (“Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind…”), continuing with fragments long and short, then short passages quoted by other authors of the time, and concluding with single words saved from bits of crumbling papyrus: channel, dawn, downrushing, danger, honeyvoiced, mythweaver.

Single brackets are used to mark the missing passages, and facing pages show the original Greek, printed in crimson ink. In some cases the right-hand page shows brackets where there are characters visible on the opposite page: tantalizing hints at words that are not entirely gone but cannot be reconstructed with any certainty.

As Carson writes in her brief but erudite introduction,

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.

Even a non-poet may be tempted to mentally recreate an intriguing passage like this one.

Go        [
so we may see[


of gold arms      [

Though Sappho’s sexuality is the most often remembered fact about her, the most startling thing about her verse is its rendering of intensely personal emotion. This is from fragment 31, which seems almost complete:

He seems to me equal to gods 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 sight 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.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty

If Not, Wintercould have been a much shorter book if the publisher had not been so generous with white space. But to see a page with no more on it than “and gold chickpeas were growing on the banks” or “with what eyes?” honors the value of the surviving words and invites us to linger over them.

Similarly, although the translator’s helpful notes are longer than her introduction, she does not overburden the book with scholarly apparatus or personal notes. The title If Not, Winter comes from fragment 22, but Carson says nothing about its significance to her. And the Note About the Translator says no more than “Anne Carson lives in Canada.”

Published Mar 30, 2011   Copyright 2011 Geoff Wisner

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