AEolian Transformations

[I guess trying to put my almanac project on this blog wasn’t a great idea. It actually just slows me down, since I have to construct it before I can put up a blog that’s all ready to go. So I’ll quit that. I haven’t had any comments on it from anybody anyway, so perhaps it won’t be missed.]

One day in January 1966, it popped into my head that something useful might be done with the fragments of Sappho’s poems. I was working at Stanford University Press at the time; so, although I did not then read Greek, I had access to all the scholarly translations and studies I needed in the library stacks. Her complete works had been as long as the first ten books of the Iliad; but what we have left, what escaped the censors and bookburnings, I typed out on ten sheets. I thought, “Perhaps if I work with these fragments carefully enough, to keep the intensely personal quality of her voice that lets you know exactly what she thinks and feels with every word, perhaps I can construct, out of these fragments, poems that she could have written.”

I gathered together the fragments, and her very few apparently complete poems, which allowed me to study the sort of articulations she used, and began working with them, as one might work with pieces from various jigsaw puzzles, to see what pictures they might make. Of course, there is no way to know what “pictures” she did paint—but the fragments built up into recognizable pictures with no forcing from me. After a few weeks of intense work, I had these “AEolian Transformations.” I had used all the fragments, save for a few epithalamia and suchlike that lacked her intense lyricism. I also used a few from Alcaeus, her contemporary (and perhaps lover), and even a few from Alcman, because they did have her lyrical quality—and besides, for all anyone really knows, they might actually have been by her and been misidentified. For the most part, I also retained the AEolic spelling of proper names, since it is interesting to see how she would actually have pronounced them.

These poems, then, are my work, not hers, and I consider them no substitute for her work, even though what we have of it is in ruins. They must stand or fall on their own merits. But I think I succeeded in what I hoped to do: her voice is in them; they are poems she could have written. In celebrating a woman’s love for women, they are very currently relevant.

1. Nightsong

Moon and Pleiades have set.
Night already half gone, I lie
Alone. I have never found peace
So annoying. Nightingale,
Why do you bother me? And my soul,
Shut up. I couldn’t hope to touch
The sky with my two hands.
I can’t think up any ringing
Song for Adonis. Aphrodita
Staggers me with wanting and leaves me
Silent. Her daughter Persuasion,
Who confuses us mortals, so we love,
Has poured her golden nectar
Tang on my mind. I don’t know
What to do: I say yes, then no.
Wherever I go, ranging love
Overtakes me; dry with longing,
I hunger for her across the sea.

Kypros, I dreamed we were talking.
A porphyry kerchief shading your face,
You were braiding your hair. You said,
“Psapha, why do you condemn
My gifts? Love is my servant.”
“Because Andromeda forgot,
I blamed you. I would have
Neither honey nor honeybee.”
“Yet, Psapha, I love you. I am
Queen in Kypros, a power to you
As sun is glory to all,
Am with you even in Hades.”

Oh, then it’s not Aphrodita! It’s that wild
Child love who plays me a catch-me-
If-you-can and tiptoe tag.
Love, born by sandaled rainbow
To goldenhaired westwind,
Bittersweet. irresistible,
You burn me, and weave myths.

2. To Her Daughter

Kleis, my golden flower, I wouldn’t
Take all Lydia for you,
Nor even Lesbos. But I don’t have
An embroidered headband for you,
And don’t know where to get one
While tyrant Myrsilos rules Mytilene.
Bright ribbon would remind me of days
When it was out enemies in exile.
My mother always said she
When young was very much in fashion
With a purple ribbon looped in her hair.
Your labyrinthine hair, yellower
Than torchlight, needs no Lydian
Ribbon, but wreathe it with an anise
Spray. The Graces favor her
Who glorifies herself, but turn
From her who goes bare.

3. Letter

I loved you, Atthis, long ago
When my girlhood was neither
Fruit nor flower, and you
Had no grace for any bed.
Do you remember the day you said,
“I swear, Psapha, if you don’t get up,
I won’t love you anymore. Throw off
Those heavy covers and that gown,
And come bathe with us; let us see
Your body and get all hot
Wanting you again. We’ll dress
You in your saffron blouse
And purple tunic and fresh
White mantle, and crown you with flowers.
Oh, some god is good: today
Psapha, most beautiful of women,
Comes with us to Mytilene,
A mother among her daughters!”
And now you despise me, and run
After Andromeda. How,
With what eyes, will you look at me?
But I am not resentful; I am
A little girl at heart. When anger
Swells, I bite my tongue.

I only wish you may sleep at peace
On a young friend’s soft breasts.

[Poems 4 to 7 come tomorrow.]

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