Sappho

884.01 If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, Sappho (translated by Anne Carson) (2003).

The idea of this book intrigued me, though I have to wonder how it found a publisher and, even more pressing, how it found its way to my public library.  It consists of the collected works of Sappho, the Greek poet.  I suspect I knew about as much about Sappho as the average person when I picked up this book (Greek erotic poetry? lesbian, or maybe from Lesbos?).  To be honest, I didn’t learn much more about her by reading it, as the introduction is pretty slim.  It turns out that the vast majority of her work has been lost to time, with only a few complete poems surviving.  Most of what still exists is bits and fragments from fragile rolled papyrus sheets.  Carson decided to collect and translate everything, even scraps with no more than a single legible word.  She also decided to publish them in a way that visually represents what is missing.  I thought it was an interesting idea and, sure enough, some of the fragments really work the imagination:

“their heart grew cold

they let their wings down”

or:

“just now goldsandaled Dawn”

However, I also found that the mystery fades quickly into exasperation, especially when faced with the many square brackets that represent incomplete or illegible text:

“]

]

]

]

]

] in a thin voice

]”

It was published in 2003 and, as far as I can tell, I am probably the first person to check it out.  (Sadly, the demise of stamped due dates on the pocket mean that I can no longer be certain of this, but surely the uncreased spine, clean and tidy pages, and pristine cover mean the same thing?)

When read a few pages at a time, it was pleasingly melancholy.  And in a way, the book’s lack of circulation is a nice if unintended complement to the fragmentary texts; imagine if it had been weeded from the shelves without a single check-out, mirroring the original losses.  Does that happen, do you suppose?

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