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Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Book Reviews

Recovering the Tenth Muse

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, 416 pages, $27.50.




The depredations of time against the literature of the ancients are famous: we know the three great Greek tragedians on the basis of the small fraction of their work which has survived, and of other playwrights, some of whom rivaled Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in the Dionysian Festival contests, we have no remains at all. In the case of the seventh-century BCE poet known as Sappho of Lesbos, these losses have been fetishized in a quasi-tactile process by which the broken words and phrases of poems recorded on papyrus tatters have become, if anything, more enigmatic and powerful than the complete poems would have been. One complete poem by Sappho survives, out of nine books of lyrics. Half of the challenge, not only of translating Sappho but also of reading her, lies in contending with the sudden silences imposed upon her words by the vagaries of textual preservation. Chance, if not Fate or Necessity, as the Greeks knew these, is the great editor standing always between us and Sappho’s poems. “Around the mummy of an Alexandrian landlord or Antinoopolitan pastry cook,” writes one of her recent translators, Guy Davenport, “there are, we can guess, for we have found them there before, shrouds of papyrus that were once pages of books on which are written Sappho’s smiling conversations with Aphrodite” (p.6). She was so gifted and influential that, even in antiquity, she was called “the tenth Muse,” as if she might join the canonical nine; Strabo, in his Geography, remarks, “in all recorded history I know of no woman who even came close to rivaling her as a poet.” Posterity has been determined to recover as much of her work as possible.

But why do people bother, if so many of her poems are fragmentary? There is an erotic heat in Sappho’s work that is universally palpable and highly contagious. Algernon Charles Swinburne was moved to write 150 couplets in iambic pentameter in Sappho’s voice, addressing her female friend, Anactoria (“Are there not other gods for other loves?” she cries), in an amatory address so brutal, intoxicating, and lovely that it makes one understand the claustrophobia the modernists found in the purple shadows and feverish emotions of the late nineteenth century. Thomas Hardy and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), among others, also wrote poems of their own deriving from Sappho. Guy Davenport speaks of her “Euclidean terseness….Never has poetry been this clear and bright.” Her poems seem to inspire dizziness, not only in writers, but in listeners, too; Solon of Athens, hearing his nephew sing a song of Sappho’s, demanded to hear it again, “So that I may learn it and die.” Then, too, Sappho was a woman, and though she was married and the mother of a daughter, she seems to have loved other women. She was an “eroticist,” as Canadian classicist and poet Anne Carson calls her, and eros is always subversive. Carson remarks in an essay on one of Sappho’s poems that the ancient poet “has chosen the most solemn and authoritative of the rituals that sacralize female boundaries [referring to the ceremony of unveiling the bride] and used it to explode the distinction between the outside and the inside of her self” (Men in the Off Hours, p. 152). It is not even clear where Sappho came from – two towns claim her, Eressos and Mytilene (the Aegean island more familiarly known as Lesbos takes its modern name from the latter) – but she wrote at a time from which the few other surviving voices are all male. And finally there is the license bestowed upon both translator and reader by the work’s fragmentary nature.

When I was in college, a resourceful teacher set his poetry students the challenge of completing a celebrated fragment of Sappho that goes: “Spring…/Too long…/ Gongyla….” The evidence suggests that the poem’s first word is intended to denote, not the season of the year (as we are irresistibly inclined to read it), but the verb of action. And the strange name, “Gongyla,” belongs to another of Sappho’s girlfriends. But the delight in this assignment lies in filling in the blanks, rather than in being true to any particulars. In translating Sappho, one is true to an aura as much as to a text. There is a pathos, in the fragmentary quality of her verses, which deepens the translator’s usual work of betrayal and homage. “May you sleep on the breast of your delicate friend,” goes Anne Carson’s translation of one fragment (#126) in its entirety; or “gathering flowers so very delicate a girl” (#122); or “messenger of spring/nightingale with a voice of longing” (#136); or “someone will remember us/I say/even in another time” (#147); or “with what eyes?” (#162).

Inspired, perhaps, by the minimalism of Sappho’s literary remains, Anne Carson’s publisher provides virtually no information about its author (“Anne Carson lives in Canada”) in the flap-copy of her new book of translations of Sappho. As it happens, Carson’s credentials for this job are excellent. She directs the classics program at McGill University, and one of her earliest publications was a book-length study entitled Eros the Bittersweet. More remarkable, however, is the trajectory of Ms. Carson’s recent career. She has published six books in less than 10 years. Beginning in 1995 with a volume entitled, Glass, Irony and God, and continuing through Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (also 1995), Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (1998), Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan (1999), Men in the Off Hours (2000), and, most recently, The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2001), Carson’s own poetry and prose were discovered and strongly endorsed by American literati. Canadian poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje, himself an experimental writer, has declared, “Anne Carson is, for me, the most exciting poet writing in English today.”

Such a rapid rise might be an occasion for skepticism. The reasons for which intellectuals and fellow writers have been so enthusiastic about Carson’s work are not hard to find. It breaks down the traditional boundaries between, for example, poetry and prose, or between fiction and nonfiction, and it seems to delight in creating new hybrid literary forms (witness those “tangos” in The Beauty of the Husband). Then, too, hers is a capacious and idiosyncratic intelligence, effortlessly able to connect the ancient past with the present moment, providing insights on both, as the subtitle of Economy of the Unlost suggests. There are moments when such a reach may exceed its grasp; Men in the Off Hours, for instance, juxtaposes Virginia Woolf and Thucydides in a meditation that, once one gets past the snort of admiration at its audacity, may seem rather self-conscious. (The two dead writers engage in a conversation later in the book.) Similarly, titles such as “Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve” or “TV Men: Antigone (Scripts 1 and 2)” feel rather modish. On the other hand, that volume also contains a prose piece entitled, “Dirt and Desire: Essay on the Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity,” which is fascinating and, in its exploration of the (male-generated) association of females with the idea of pollution, seems an invaluable corrective to the historical record.

More often than not, Carson’s ingenuity pays off richly. One may be slightly baffled by the reasoning which brings her, by means of the seventh-century BCE poet Stesichorus, to write a long poem (Autobiography of Red) in which the monster Geryon, killed in one of Heracles’ 12 labors in Greek mythology, is reimagined as a kind of teenage romantic casualty. But the erotic power of Carson’s narrative, the emotional truth to which she gains access by means of this strange tale, cannot be denied. Indeed, if Autobiography of Red is considered together with Men in the Off Hours and with Carson’s prose poem, The Beauty of the Husband, it begins to seem that she is writing a single weirdly refracted spiritual autobiography, a Bildungsroman of sorts, encompassing youthful erotic obsession, unhappy marriage, divorce, and the death of a parent. Carson’s decision to translate Sappho is therefore promising on more than merely professional or vocational grounds. Although the world of Greek antiquity has been examined by feminists, there have been few observations offered, whether about relations between the sexes or gender itself, to match Carson’s for intelligence and balance. And in her own poems, she has cultivated a demotic and personal voice that explores the distances between speaking and silence. If anyone can help us bridge the cruel gaps torn by time in the fabric of Sappho’s poems, maybe Carson can.

There have been other interesting recent translations of Sappho, including Guy Davenport’s (1965; contained in Seven Greeks: Archilochos, Sappho, Alkman, Anakreon, Herakleitos, Diogenes, Herondas, published in 1995), Sappho: A Garland, by poet Jim Powell (1993), and Stanley Lombardo’s Sappho: Poems and Fragments (2002). Davenport’s translations are both intelligent and occasionally playful in a way reminiscent, perhaps, of Zukofsky’s notorious “homophonic” Catullus translations, as when Davenport translates one fragment “O Pollyanna,/Polyanaktidas,/Good-bye, good-bye” (#67). In addition to attempting to render Sappho’s Aeolic metrics in modern American verse, substituting stress for quantity, Powell takes considerable liberties with ordering her fragments, as he explains in his “Afterwords”: “I have taken the opportunity to arrange Sappho’s extant poetry in an integrated collage or mosaic, playing off modernist techniques of poetic sequence, fragmentary montage and stream of consciousness to create a cumulative movement that points to the integrity of her work as the surviving fragments disclose it” (pp. 37-38).

On the face of it, Carson’s principles of translation are straightforward: “I tried to put down all that can be read of each poem in the plainest language I could find, using where possible the same order of words and thoughts as Sappho did” (p. x). But, in fact, her project is considerably more ambitious. One reason her work has been so popular among literati and academics is because of what we might call its metatextual dimension: for Carson’s work is always both about itself and about the process of reading and interpreting itself in a kind of simultaneous literary present. Thus, in the extremely helpful notes accompanying her translation, we find references to Simone Weil, Yannis Ritsos, Samuel Beckett, Jacques Derrida, Gertrude Stein, and George Eliot: a veritable Who’s Who of current literary fashion. These connections are often thought-provoking, if inconclusive. Occasionally they can seem willful, as when Carson invokes a letter of Emily Dickinson’s as a parallel illustration of what she identifies as “the dripping fecundity of daylight as a foil for the mind’s voyaging at night” in a fragment of Sappho’s mentioning the light of the moon. Not even Carson’s daring intellect can make the Belle of Amherst and the Tenth Muse inhabit the same world, however. Often those notes are most valuable in which Carson ventures a personal comment without laboring to relate Sappho to any other writer, as when she remarks of one fragment, “It is a restless and strangely baited poem that seems to gather its logic into itself rather than pay it out” (362, of Fragment 16). In her discussion of Fragment 55, a poem addressed to a rich woman indifferent to the Muses, Carson points out that “Sappho’s poem threatens the woman with an obliteration which it then enacts by not naming her” (368). In any case, like Annie Dillard, another writer for whom the usual distinctions of literary genre do not apply, Carson is fascinated, not only by the process by which experience is transformed into text, but by the process by which we interpret that text, and Carson provides occasional brisk reassuring apostrophes to the reader. As she says in Autobiography of Red, “If you find the text difficult, you are not alone.”

Like other translators of Sappho, Carson must make extensive use of square brackets to indicate where the fragments begin and end; the reader admires her forthrightness in discussing these: “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 simply free a space of imaginal adventure” (p. xi). This pep talk is worth bearing in mind when one comes to Carson’s fragment 87d, for example, consisting of a vertical column of three closed brackets, the single word “youth,” and six more closed brackets. (Knopf, it might be added, has spared no expense in producing this volume; the Greek originals appear en face, printed in red ink.) As a classicist, Carson is superbly sensitive to the rhythms, breathings, and intricate meters of the original poems. She does not attempt to approximate the original Greek meters in contemporary English verse (as Jim Powell does in his translations), although her determination to “use the same order of words and thoughts as Sappho did” occasionally results in curious lines, as in her Fragment 98B: “but for you Kleis I have no/spangled – where would I get it? – /headbinder…” (p.197).

Sappho’s poems are known to us partly from their fragmentary survival on papyrus and partly through their citation by other classical writers. Carson’s notes are thorough and invaluable in their listing of these citations. The poet and the translator have as their common ground an obsession with the meanings and origins of words (after all, our parsing of any line of poetry depends on how we understand the words of which it is composed), and, philologically, Carson’s notes are deeply satisfying also. In some cases, she delivers us gracefully to the inevitable threshold on which we must acknowledge that, given very few words and a long textual history, a poem can mean one thing and simultaneously mean that thing’s opposite: “you came and I was crazy for you,” Carson translates Fragment 48, “and you cooled my mind that burned with longing” (p.101). But her note raises a question about the fragment’s “erotic temperature,” inasmuch as one verb could mean either “you inflamed” or “you cooled,” depending on how it was emended (p.367).

The game of reconstructing Sappho’s work on the basis of these citations by other writers, of course, provides another metatextual opportunity to any translator, one which Carson wisely concludes is beyond the scope of her book, speaking of that place “at the inside edge where her words go missing, a sort of antipoem that condenses everything you ever wanted her to write” (p. xiii). I do not think there is another contemporary translation of Sappho that comes close to Carson’s in the density and vividness of its recreation of the world of antiquity. Her discussion of the ancient Greek word aidos, for example, in Fragment 137 makes clear that its usual translation as “shame” does not adequately capture what she calls its “voltage of decorum,” its nuances of meaning that make clear the enormous cultural differences between our time and Sappho’s. Anne Carson has recovered, not only the Tenth Muse, but the psychological and cultural landscapes in which Sappho of Lesbos lived and moved.

Karl Kirchwey is the author of three books of poems; currently, he is director of creative writing and senior lecturer in the arts at Bryn Mawr College.
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