I’ve read bits of Sappho before and was never impressed enough to pursue reading more. I thought someday I would but someday was in the vague and indeterminate future. Maybe it was the translation. Or the right book at the right time. Or that I didn’t think about it much, just picked it up on a whim and read it. Whatever the reason, I was awed by If Not, Winter translated by Anne Carson.
Carson seemed to just step out of the way and let Sappho and the poem fragments speak for themselves. She doesn’t try to dress them up as anything other than what they are whether it is one word or a dozen on the page. I found the ones I liked most often were among the shorter fragments. I mean, is this not gorgeous?
I would not think to touch the sky with two arms
I never imagined that the fragments could be so evocative. This one seems so sad to me:
I used to weave crowns
I suppose that could be part of something joyous, perhaps the crown weaver no longer weaves because she wears the crowns now. I think that is part of why Sappho is so beloved by so many. Because her poems are fragments and we have no complete context for many of them, the reader is required to fill in the gaps, to bring to the poem a piece of herself. A complete poem will tell you how to feel about it, it intentionally creates and provokes a mood or emotion. But when we are faced with this:
I long and seek after
What are we to make of it? What is being longed for and sought? It doesn’t matter, the longing and desire that oozes from the words is enough. Not having anything more makes the poem more intimate, as if Sappho knew exactly what I long for.
Reading this book filled me with pleasure and happiness. There is a certain feeling I get when I read a beautiful poem or line of prose, it is a feeling both contained and expansive. I am myself but more than myself. The air is heavy and solid but breathing is easy and I am light and floating. Does anyone else get a feeling like that? I felt it every time I sat down to read Sappho. I will definitely be reading these poems again. It is a good book to have around and just dip into now and then.