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Maddeningly Fragmentary

Sappho

Sappho

One of the greatest poets of the ancient world was Sappho—the only woman, with a voice unmistakably feminine even though so little remains of her work. And everything that remains appears in Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2002).

I have read a number of Anne Carson’s translations from the Greek and love all of them, especially the four Euripidean tragedies collected in Grief Lessons. This is a very different book, four hundred pages of mostly white space. Only a single poem has come down to us in its entirety; as for the rest, we have nothing but fragments.

Yet even in those fragments, we have a soft feminine voice, one with occasionally lesbian nuances:

I would rather see her lovely step
and the motion of light on her face
than chariots of Lydians or ranks
of footsoldiers in arms.

In the following fragment, the lacunae are indicated by square brackets, yet the meaning still comes across:

]of desire
]
]for when I look at you
]such a Hermione
]and to yellowhaired Helen I liken you
]
]among mortal women, know this
]from every care
]you could release me
]
]dewy riverbanks
]to last all night long
]  [

And:

]
]you will remember
]for we in our youth
did these things

yes many and beautiful things
]
]
]

Sometimes, all that Anne Carson has to work with in a single word or two, yet even then something comes across.

If Not, Winter is a quick read, but it leaves a strong impression.

 

 

 

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