Like a Burning Birch Tree

July 12, 2007 at 3:34 pm | Posted in gender, love, modernism, poetry, reticence | 8 Comments

“Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.”
— Wallace Stevens, from “Sunday Morning”

Hello again dear readers. I had a post in mind about Robert Frost that was actually going to be relevant to the topics I was exploring last time, but that will have to wait because today my heart cries out to write about Sappho. I was dutifully reading some Amy Lowell for my upcoming Ph.D. exams, when I came across the following passage in her poem “The Sisters”:

There’s Sapho, now I wonder what was Sapho.
I know a single slender thing about her:
That, loving, she was like a burning birch tree
All tall and glittering fire, and that she wrote
Like the same fire caught up to Heaven and held there,
A frozen blaze before it broke and fell.

Holy Jesus, I thought. Amy Lowell, sometimes you really do succeed at Imagism no matter what Ezra Pound says. This image, it’s perfect. That is Sappho exactly. Observe Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho’s Fragment 31 from her beautiful, necessary book If Not, Winter:

He seems to me equal to the gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
I seem to me.

People have been translating Sappho for centuries, and these translations reflect the poetic styles of the time. My books are all packed away in boxes, with the exception of my poetry shelf, but otherwise I’d whip out Yopie Prins’ Victorian Sappho and share with you some of the florid, iambic-pentameter ways the above has been rendered. I love the sparseness of Carson’s Sappho, because the fragmentary nature of her text is essential to our experience of it today. It’s interesting to think about: Sappho was presumably not, herself, a reticent riddler, but because her manuscripts were scattered by the winds of time (and torn into strips to wrap corpses in Egypt!), her poems today exist only in scraps and tatters. She has been a huge influence on verse, particularly verse by women, inspiring a whole ideal of sparse, cryptic, reticent lyric, without herself ever quite having been any of those things.

Part of what people are inspired by, then, must be the action of history on Sappho’s text. When H.D. writes her fragmentary verse, she is imitating not Sappho, but what time has done to Sappho. She inscribes the violence of forgetting into her poems. Anne Carson, in turn, is influenced by H.D. and others like her; her own verse has a similar sparseness. When she applies this style to her translations of Sappho, what we get is loss squared. 75% of Carson’s book is white space; she puts only one fragment on each page, even if it is only three words long. The words cry out to be understood, and incite the imagination to try to figure out what is missing.

But Lowell is right: the glimpses we get are of a magnificently strange voice, speaking of powerful love. Even the smallest of fragments sing. For example, Fragment 125:

I used to weave crowns

The silence surrounding this becomes profound, even if Sappho didn’t write it that way. Well, and what now? Who did you weave them for? Why have you stopped? Why is this no longer a world made for crowns?

Today I discovered what has instantly become my favorite love poem ever. Are you ready for it? Fragment 45:

as long as you want

What do you think? Should I get it tattooed between my shoulderblades? Maybe in the Greek, so I don’t quite give myself away.

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