Yann Martel, author of "Life of Pi", will include his laudatory latter about my Sappho translation in his forthcoming book, "Letters to a Prime Minister" (Random House, 2012).
Book Number 86: Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments, by Sappho, in a new translation by Aaron Poochigian
July 19, 2010
To Stephen Harper,
Prime Minister of Canada,
Poetry that has crossed the desert of time,
From a Canadian writer,
With best wishes,
The Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa ON K1A 0A2
Dear Mr. Harper,
I’m back and you’re still there. So let’s resume this lopsided duet where I read, think, write, and mail, and you say and do nothing. Your silence doesn’t particularly bother me. It’s future generations who will damn you or, more likely, mock you. Me? I feel like a cowboy in a western who is about to cross a fearsome desert. To comfort myself, I talk out loud. Does my horse answer me? No, it doesn’t. Would I therefore want to do without it? No, because without it I would lose what defines me as a cowboy—and I would have to cross that desert on foot. You are my democratic horse through which I exist as a democratic cowboy. Better to ride on your sullen back than to be trampled down by a dictator. As for these troubled times, the desert that faces us? I have faith that we’ll get through it, somehow. I’ll be guided by the books I read and the people I meet. And you, our leader? I don’t know. Do blind horses get across deserts? Are they not swallowed up by the sands?
Before I go on, I should ask: have you enjoyed the books that some fine fellow Canadian writers have sent you while I was on tour for my latest novel? I am grateful to Steven Galloway, Charles Foran, Alice Kuipers, Don McKay, René-Daniel Dubois and Emile Martel for contributing to your burgeoning library. Those are interesting titles they sent you.
Poor Greece. It’s certainly received a beating these last few months. The mismanagement of their finances has cost the country—and a number of European banks—very dearly. I’m not entirely sympathetic to their woes. By the sounds of it, the blame for the problems of the Greeks can largely by laid on the shoulders of the Greeks—and then they were prayed upon by greedy banks, who saw profit in making easy loans to them. A real mess, an insolvency that will tar and mar the country for years to come.
Yet a country can’t be reduced to its pockets, whether deep or full of holes. Poor Greece, rich Greece, mismanaged Greece, recovering Greece—next to that monolith of a proper noun those adjectives are mere twigs. Greece is Greece is Greece, and there is much to that. For starters, the language and its alphabet, lovely and arresting. I count the Greek language as one of the most pleasing vocal instruments our species has come up with. Italian, spoken next door, perhaps has a more lissome, mellifluous form, but Greek has the staccato intensity of content. Western philosophy, and therefore Western civilization—since before we do we must think—started with the Greeks, specifically with the Greeks living in Ionia, in Asia Minor, now Turkey. They became known as the pre-Socratics since they were not quite weighty enough to be given their own name but rather became defined by the illustrious philosopher whom they preceded. Nevertheless, those pre-Socks—Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, elsewhere the formidable Parmenidies of Elea, besides others—are important because they were the first to try to understand the world relying not on myth but on reason. They observed the world, something that hadn’t been done before in the West. That inspired intellectual approach, which brought Greece a blaze of renown, was such a singular achievement that when the Italians did the same some two thousand years later, inspired in part by the rediscovery of some forgotten Greek philosophers named Plato and Aristotle, it was called the renaissance, after the initial naissance brought about by the ancient Greeks.
Well, at the same time as the Greeks were thinking, some of them were also feeling. So Sappho. I haven’t sent you poetry in a long while. Sappho was a woman who lived on the island of Lesbos roughly between the years 630 and 570 BCE. She is held to be the first woman poet in literary history. Those who came before her have been lost to time. Sappho’s poetry itself—some 9,000 lines in total, it is estimated—has barely survived the predation of time and exists only in fragments. In the late 19th century in the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus, an ancient garbage dump containing vast quantities of papyrus was discovered. Much of it had been used by the ancient Egyptians as stuffing to fill the empty spaces in coffins and mummies. In one mummified crocodile’s stomach, a fragment of poetry by Sappho was found. (That must have been one happy croc, to be digesting a morsel of Sappho’s poetry for centuries.)
Though Sappho wrote on a variety of subjects, she is best known for her love poetry. It is simple and moving. Take this fragment:
Sweet mother, I can’t take shuttle in hand.
There is a boy, and lust
Has crushed my spirit—just
As gentle Aphrodite planned.
Weaving was a female activity. A virginal girl who properly married would continue weaving as the head of her household. But if she was lead astray… It’s interesting to note the feminine empowerment in this fragment. The girl is aware of the options that are available to her. It is for her to choose whether to take hold of the shuttle again and focus on her weaving, or turn to the boy. Another fragment gives us a clue about her choice:
Since I have cast my lot, please, golden-crowned
Aphrodite, let me win this round!
Here’s another heartfelt cry from twenty-six centuries ago:
That impossible predator,
Eros the Limb-Loosener,
Bitter-sweetly and afresh
Savages my flesh.
Like a gale smiting an oak
On mountainous terrain,
Eros, with a stroke,
Shattered my brain.
But a strange longing to pass on
Seizes me, and I need to see
Lotuses on the dewy banks of Acheron.
Acheron was one of the rivers of the Underworld, and the lotuses on its edge were associated with forgetfulness. The poet is so love-sick that she wants to die and eat the flowers of amnesia.
Some of the poems are surprisingly explicit:
‘Time and again we plucked lush flowers, wed
Spray after spray in strands and fastened them
Around your soft neck; you perfumed your head
‘Of glossy curls with myrrh—lavish infusions
In queenly quantities—then on a bed
Prepared with fleecy sheets and yielding cushions,
‘Sated your craving…’
It’s the “yielding cushions” that really makes this hot stuff.
Sappho laments the ravages of old age:
As you are dear to me, go claim a younger
Bed as your due.
I can’t stand being the old one any longer,
Living with you.
She also widens her gaze to topics that might be called political, and what she has to say is pertinent to this day:
Wealth without real worthiness
Is no good for the neighbourhood;
But their proper mixture is
The summit of beatitude.
I’ll quote one last fragment, a prescient one:
That later on,
Even in an age unlike our own,
Someone will remember who we are.
Indeed. Sappho lived among people who were mostly illiterate. Amazing that poetry performed aloud and preserved initially only in the memories of her listeners should survive to this day. They are fragments, true, and who is to say what treasures were obliterated by time (or continue to lie dormant in a mummified animal lying under Egyptian sands). But what survives still speaks—and what more can one ask of a poem? The passion of Sappho’s poetry has something volcanic to it: the print may be thin and black, but just beneath it runs molten lava.
So when you have Greece on your mind, as I’m sure you have recently, I hope you manage to take the long view. Economics is a short-term concern. What endures is art. Ask any crocodile how to survive a desert and it will tell you: better to have a poem in your stomach than a number in your head.
encl: one inscribed paperback