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Illustration: Polly Crossman

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A poem that allows you to take from it what you need

There is something incredibly soothing about contemplating a handful of words and a blank space left behind by Sappho, one of the earliest female poets

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By Ella Risbridger on

There is something magical about reading a poem that was written two and a half thousand years ago, especially when that poem is so vivid, vibrant and alive that it might have been written yesterday. This is what it’s like reading Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter. It’s kind of a combination of time-travel and therapy: it’s a series of translations of the work of Sappho, one of the earliest female poets – but it’s not like any translation you’ve ever read before.

For one thing, the poems she’s translating are not like any poems you’ve read before. They are often only parts of poems, or only a good phrase, or even just two words together that somehow tell a story nonetheless, like:

]bitter
]
]and know this

There’s a character there; there’s somebody speaking, and you can hear them across two and a half thousand years.

The square brackets represent where words are missing – and lots of words are missing. Imagine if you put a Complete Shakespeare through a shredder, and managed to rescue only a big fistful of the pieces: that’s about what we’ve got left of Sappho’s work. Some parts we have miraculously pieced back together to make a whole verse, or a whole line. In a single case we have a whole poem. But more often we end up with something else: tiny mysterious fragments that somehow say everything they need to.

A handful of words tell a story: it’s poetry stripped right back, with none of the fuss or frills.

These snippets read almost like spells themselves: “neither for me honey nor the honey-bee” sounds like the kind of beautiful, austere saying you’ve known all your life, and never quite known what it means. Perhaps it means something different to everyone who reads it. This is the thing that’s so extraordinary about these poems: because they are mostly only little fragments now, they can be what you need them to be. You can take from them exactly what you need, and find solace in the silence. It’s practically therapeutic.

When you read these poems, you are part of a chain of women reading these poems for two and a half thousand years

This has been a very hard week, and there is something incredibly soothing about contemplating a handful of words and a blank space: like a meditation, or a Rorschach ink blot. What do you see? Do you read

]     
      ] and yes I
shall love

as defiant, or glad, or naive? What about this one?

to be
    ]to arrive

It’s like opening the Bible at random, or telling the Tarot: each card, each sentence, each tiny fragment is what you make of it.

For a long time, only scholars could read Sappho like this: as raw and fragmented and real. This is because translators of Sappho have historically tried to fill in the blanks. They’ve added words; added “thee” and “thou” and sometimes swapping in words that seemed to the translator to better fit their idea of what a woman should be thinking. For a long time, you could only read Sappho’s work through what a (usually male) classicist thought she might be saying. That’s not how these translations work: Carson tells you where the spaces are, and where the line-breaks are, and when we just can’t know what something was supposed to mean, and when she’s not sure, she tells you that too. “On the other hand,” she says in a footnote to one poem, “I may be reading this sentence all wrong.”

There’s something incredibly liberating about a book of poetry that is so open to interpretation that even the translator isn’t sure: like I said in my very first column, poetry is always a collaboration between the poet and the reader. This is just more explicit about it: a real connection between you and a stranger. A ghost, in some ways. You get to find things about yourself in the spaces made by 2,500 years, prompted by someone who lived 2,500 years ago. Because we know so little about Sappho – most of what we know comes from her poems – she could be anyone. She can be everyone.

There’s a current school of thought that suggests that these aren’t poems as we know poems, but more like songs: songs for groups of women to sing together. In that sense, then, these poems are for everyone; they always have been. When you read these poems, you are part of a chain of women reading these poems for two and a half thousand years. You are part of it, and here’s the brilliant part: Sappho knew it. She writes, in one of my favourite fragments, to her lover:

...you may forget, but
let me tell you
this: someone in
some future time
will think of us...

That’s you in the poem; that’s you, right there, thinking of her as she knew you would. She imagined you, the reader, as she was writing. Like I say: it’s time-travel; it’s the closest thing I know to magic.

@missellabell

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Illustration: Polly Crossman
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My life in poems
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