This week I’m going to be writing about love. It seems like a good time for it. Let’s kick off with these poems attributed to the Greek poet Sappho. She’s one of the poets I love most. Her work has always spoken so loudly to me.
I discovered Sappho in college. Immediately, I fell madly in love with her sparse, spare writing. It still reminds me of a spear in flight: so sharp, pointed, direct, and resonant. Her writing feels utterly Hellenic in tone even in translation.
In afct, I took Ancient Greek in college not because I wanted to read the Bible, like so many of my evangelical peers did, but because I wanted to understand more about this poetry of hers that we have gleaned and gathered over the years. I still can’t read her work out loud without fighting back awed tears of wonder sometimes.
From the Rubble.
That said, we don’t really have a lot of her poetry. We have, perhaps, one complete poem out of many we know about. Most of what we know of her work comes to us in quotations from later authors or discovered muddled in recycled scrolls, though we still find some snippets here and there. Here is a site that has a lot of her poetry, and here are her two most recently-discovered poems in case you feel like reading more of her work.
So without further ado, my favorite two poems of hers:
Some say cavalry and others claim
infantry or a fleet of long oars
is the supreme sight on the black earth.
I say it is
the one you love. And easily proved.
Didn’t Helen–who far surpassed all
mortals in her beauty–desert the best
of men, her king,
and sail off to Troy and forget
her daughter and dear kinsmen? Merely
the Kyprian’s gaze made her bend and led
her from her path;
these things remind me now
of Anaktoria who is far,
would rather see her warm supple step
and the sparkle of her face–than watch all the
dazzling chariots and armored
hoplites of Lydia.
trans. by Willis Barnstone, Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets, p. 66
He is more than a hero
He is a god in my eyes–
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you–he
who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing
laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast. If I meet
you suddenly, I can’t
speak–my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,
hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body
and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn’t far from me
trans. by Mary Barnard, Sappho: A New Translation, #39
When I look at poems like these, and compare them to the dry, bloodless, pale, weirdly asexual version of “love” that my old religion thought was the highest and best iteration of marriage and romantic attachment, I cannot even imagine a time when I busted my butt trying to fit myself into that latter view.
Nowadays I get this impression from right-wing fundies that humans are supposed to be “above” the divine madness that love can provoke, that women especially are not supposed to feel that kind of aching longing. In many flavors of Christianity, women feel discouraged from to feeling like or expressing themselves like sexual beings.
But Sappho is standing right here to tell those folks that no, many people have always felt like this. We’ve always been capable of this. Sexuality is a beautiful thing and not something to deny out of hand. Sappho’s quiet, direct voice echoes clearly from her grave. From the moment I read her work for the first time, even before I deconverted, while I was still a fundamentalist and still struggling with gender roles, still struggling to fit into that sterilized vision of femininity, her passionate voice carried over all that din and noise.
We start with Sappho because, to put it simply, she started with me.
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