review: fragments of sappho

05 January 2015

book info:
on sale: now
copy from: library
pages: 402
review written: 5.1.15
originally published: 2002

title: If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho
author: Sappho/Anne Carson

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. In If Not, Winter Carson 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.
summary from: book jacket

My thoughts:
Sappho in an ancient Greek poetess, aristocrat, lyricist (she wrote poems to be accompanied by the lyre), wife and mother. Her love songs were often addressed to women which was not considered blasphemy as homosexuality was accepted in Greece. Fun fact: the words "lesbian" and "sapphic" both come from Sappho. Another cool fact: she was one of the first poets to write in the first person. A majority of her poems have been lost and only fragments have been discovered. Anne Carson translated the original Greek text into English substituting brackets for missing text. I wandered over to the non-fiction section of my library out of curiosity because the Dewey Decimal system always intimidated me. However, I'm glad I went there because I found this gem. The title is a fragment from one of the poems, and the gold-tinted scraps to the left of the book cover are the surviving papyrus fragments from the Bibliothque Nationale de France in Paris. The beautiful cover, the minimalist text font, the presentation of the lyrics, and the actual content come together perfectly in this lovely volume.
My first thought was "This is annoying" because there's sometimes a single word on a page and I was constantly turning pages. Later, I began to appreciate the layout. It was surreal reading what little survived of Sappho's work. I imagined the possibilities of what could've been written, what had once existed, and what would forever be lost to us. Here in these pages existed a part of Sappho. Her use of first person, which was novel, made me feel as if I were reading her private diary. Many of the themes she wrote about were human, personal, and deep. Her thoughts are sensitive and sweet. I've never read poems as delicate as Sappho's, even from other female poets such as Dickinson. These are not poems of the grand scheme of things, nor are they poems of the gods or their creations. These are human lyrics.
 For example, this was all that was written on page 279


I want to say something but shame
prevents me

yet if you had a desire for good or beautiful things
and your tongue were not concocting some evil to say,
shame would not hold down your eyes
but rather you would speak about what is just

 To read the words of a woman who lived in Ancient Greece, to read this small fragment of a time long ago, is truly a remarkable and often under-appreciated gift.  Another one of my favourites:


but if you love us
      choose a younger bed
      for I cannot bear
                   to live with you when I am the older one

 These small fragments speak such grand volumes that it's difficult to fathom how much an entire poem could deliver. What I loved most about Sappho's poems were actually her love poems "Most commonly the target of her affections was female, often one of the many women sent to her for education in the arts. She nurtured these women, wrote poems of love and adoration to them, and when they eventually left the island to be married, she composed their wedding songs." The grace and care and deep affection in Sappho's words, although full of pain and sorrow, revealed to me the true beauty of love. Her love poems are different than those of men writing to women they fancy. She writes truly as a woman who loves another woman, and I think there's a subtly that a man can never achieve when writing about the opposite gender that Sappho writes remarkably. One poem, on page 185, strikes me.


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.

The rest continues for another 2 stanzas, but I'll leave that for you to read later! Overall, I think this was a beautifully arranged translation of a remarkable collection of fragmented poems. Sappho has become one of my new favourite poets, on par with my love of e. e. cummings. I don't quite know how to review poetry, so I apologise if this review was lacking but the book itself certainly wasn't. This is an elegant volume that I recommend for those looking for a quick and but insightful, thought-provoking read. I give this book five out of six umbrellas!

1 thoughts:

  1. Wow. This sounds like a different read. I love poetry but I preferto read it on its original language. You lose so much in the tranation.


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