Monday, April 1, 2013

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho
Translated by Anne Carson

In one of those coincidences you sometimes finding yourself wondering about, I opened Anne Carson’s magnificent translation of Sappho’s poetry to these lines:
Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot
and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing
on the black earth. But I say it is
            what you love.
Sappho’s statement counters our daily news, and Homer’s epic news. In The Iliad the old men on the walls of Troy look out over the fields of battle and judge that, so far, the ten noble years of bloodshed and suffering in the Trojan War have all been worth it in order to possess Helen and her “terrible beauty,” as they put it. But war is not the most beautiful thing, and Sappho’s certainty about it resonates for us.

The resonances begin with a book design that stops you before you open the pages. Wrapped around the spine, and resting in the white open space of the cover, lies a torn and broken papyrus fragment. Greek letters creep uncertainly over the ragged fabric and you find yourself holding so much emptiness in your hands. Surfacing out of this terra incognita, the first words on the cover appear: If Not, Winter. If not what? If not love? Then winter comes? This is probably the kind of sentimental speculation that Carson would dismiss.

All we know is “if not, winter.” These three words stand alone in one of the fragmentary love poems inside. The rest is silence. The other poems, sometimes no more than just a few words on a blank page, extend the sense of loss and uncertainty. Reading them is like seeing dream fragments surface out of the great emptiness of Sappho’s distance from us. And like the best dream fragments, the poems are loaded with meanings that begin to coalesce. 

Sappho's lyric poetry is presented in discrete pieces that suggest as much as they reveal. Carson reveals more in her notes. They fill in some of the absence that is present in the space on most pages. Sappho’s poem about life in exile with her daughter and Carson’s sensitive commentary were published in a longer version in Men in the Off Hours. Here they are again, filled with the love and sorrow of a mother who, in her exile, cannot care properly for her daughter. Carson deepens our understanding of this maternal sadness with a dense commentary that opens up the experience of Sappho’s cultural location, and of her dislocation in exile. At other times, Carson's notes are full of blunt good sense. In response to today’s adolescent obsession with sexual preference, she states, “It seems that she knew and loved women as deeply as she did music,” and then asks dismissively, “Can we leave the matter there?”

Of course Sappho is, above all, a poet of love. Some of her songs of love for her lovers, daughter, brother, and friends feel like they could have been written yesterday. Did Van Morrison take a look at this two-line fragment before he wrote "Crazy Love"?
you came and I was crazy for you
and you cooled my mind that burned with longing
Does this recall The Commitments' "Try a Little Tenderness"?
and on a soft bed
you would let loose your longing
In a similar way, the fragments, empty space, and broken lines conspire to let loose, probably with more restraint, our longing as well. Our longing for more of Sappho’s work begins to recover, through this unusual book, our own experiences of loss. It’s a little like trying to remember, from a distance, just how much you loved someone before they were gone. It is also a relief to have Carson’s reconstruction and translation, and to see these images now, as the descendants of The Mechanical Bride threaten to metastasize the untrustworthy oracles of digital space.

The translator’s biographical note reads, as usual, “Anne Carson lives in Canada.” This seems like another fragment, although Carson does appear on stage in her introduction, before not quite disappearing into the wings: “I like to think that, the more I stand out of the way, the more Sappho shows through.” Her introduction and notes have kept me re-reading these fragments, and the reward is that Sappho does show through. With winter behind us, you could open this book some spring morning as “just now goldensandaled Dawn” (fragment 123) rises in the east, and know that “the most beautiful thing on the black earth…is what you love.” Otherwise, “if not, winter.”

- Jim Reid

Jim Reid has seven years of Latin, and no Greek. He has been waiting for another translation of Sappho since he picked up Mary Barnard’s in 1973.

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