Sunday, July 19, 2009

If Not, Winter by Sappho (trans. Anne Carson)

(image by motionblur)
This is the sort of book that strikes me cleverness dumb. So I will simply begin by telling you what the book is.

If Not, Winter is a collection of all of the known works of Sappho - almost entirely fragments. Sappho was, in ancient Greece, considered one of the two greatest lyric poets, alongside Pindar. However, probably in part because she was a woman and in part because she appears to have been bisexual (her home was Lesbos, and the words lesbian and sapphic come from her), only one complete poem of hers survives, and then a series of fragments. The book, then, is a collection of those fragments, some salvaged bits of papyrus, some quotes (sometimes just a quoted word) from her contemporaries.

Of all the books I've ever read, as a physical book, this is probably the number one most beautiful, in terms of words, I've ever seen. The concept and layout is beautiful, sparse, and extremely powerful - it is a book that proves that books themselves are still pertinent and meaningful. The beautiful thing is, without the layout, honestly, most of these fragments would feel meaningless and orphaned. The way the fragments are presented conveys the feeling of loss, the frustration of something we can never have in ways that description cannot. Fragment 107 is a good example. Each fragment is composed of facing pages, the left in Ancient Greek, the right an English translation. Fragment 107 is an empty, white page, with 107 on the top, and simply the fragmented sentence:

"do I still yearn for my virginity?"

Similarly 126 just reads:

"may you sleep on the breast of your delicate friend"

Sometimes there is more, as in 104, where there is enough to get a fleeting echo of a voice in it:


you gather back
all that dazzling dawn has put asunder:
you gather a lamb
you gather a kid
you gather a child to its mother


of all stars the most beautiful

Of course, in isolation like this, that seems silly. But it isn't! I saw a review that likened it to trying to hear a poorly tuned radio station. To me, it's more like sitting outside of a concert, slowly realizing that they're playing something beautiful, and then having the concert end before you can get in the door. Ther are lines, sometimes:

138: stand to face me beloved
and open out the grace of your eyes

sometimes, there is even enough to catch the gist of a tune:

I simply want to be dead.
Weeping she left me

with many tears and said this:
Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.

And I answered her:
Rejoice, go and
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.

But if not, I want
to remind you
] and beautiful times we had.

For many crowns of violets
and roses
] at my side you put on

and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.

And the brackets! I ahve never had a relationship with a piece of punctuation like I've now developed with the square bracket, which signifies, in the text, a lost block of text, illegible or destroyed:

] heart
] absolutely
] I can
] would be for me
] to shine in answer
] face
] having been stained

And so it is, the entire book. Whenever you read a poem in translation, there is a certain feeling of loss - in this case, Carson takes that loss and uses it as a tool, instead of an impediment, uses it to show it what it actually means to be blind to beauty, or even worse, to destroy it or prevent it. Every frustrating break, every meaningless half sentence after a beautiful unfinished metaphor speaks in this powerful white space, whispering, "This beauty was and is no more. A man, like you, destroyed it. History is a damaged cloth, and we, we men, are moths..."

By the end of the book, the fragments have sheared themselves into single words, it's like listening to the broken soul of a mad person, these bursts of meaninglessness, meaningful only because we wish they were, empty, but pregnant with impossible loss:








of the Muses










gold anklebone cups

And that's the end. gold anklebone cups, and the book of history closes, a woman is put into a little book (it take about two hours to read), and tucked away into a mass of whitespace, and the shreds of what she was. If you love poetry, and you want to remember why you love it, and what life would be without it, read this book.


Amanda said...

Fascinating. I really need to look at the way this is laid out. I can see what you mean about a physical book being necessary - a kindle or ipod just couldn't convey the white spaces.

Rebecca Reid said...

wow. I had no idea so little of Sappho's poetry existed today. This sounds like such a powerful thing to experience with all the white space! I'm adding it to my list to find! Soon.

Unknown said...

Yeah, I can't really convey the page in a book review, it's a very visual experience. I highly recommend it - and it really doesn't take that long to read.

hamilcar barca said...

i sometimes think the greatest single loss of knowledge ever was when the Library of Alexandria was burnt to the ground. how many works like this went up in smoke, without any possible hope of recovery?

Unknown said...

I guess that's why I enjoyed the book - the idea that a whole bunch of stuff got burned is sort of... distantly disturbing. I don't know what it was, I'm not very smart, so it means very little to me, even though I know it should mean more. Seeing the hole that hteburning left, makes you feel about it, in a human way.

Ana S. said...

"To me, it's more like sitting outside of a concert, slowly realizing that they're playing something beautiful, and then having the concert end before you can get in the door."

I just love this image so much. Excellent review. It's so sad her work has been lost.

Unknown said...

Thanks - I love that Sappho was a musician - in fact it's entirely possible that she wasn't even literate. Ms Carson points this out at the beginning of the book, and it made me feel like I half heard singing all through the book.

Rebecca Reid said...

Hi Jason,

This review would fit in really well with the upcoming bookworms carnival I'm hosting, which is about Really Old Classics. Would you mind if I included a link to it?

Please let me know. Thanks,


Emily said...

This is one of my favorite books of poetry ever! Thank you so much for the reminder of how beautiful it is. If you're interested in another reader's thoughts, my review is over here...never before have I read something that makes such stunning use of the fragmented state, and negative space. Thanks for the lovely review.

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