The Tenth Muse
Carson, Anne, trans. If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho, Knopf, 397 pp
Lombardo, Stanley, trans. Sappho: Poems and Fragments, Hackett Publishing Co., 68 pp
Reynolds, Margaret, A Sappho Companion, Palgrave McMillan, 400 pp

By Robert Herschbach

Nine books of Sappho's poetry were known to the ancient world, but today only one complete poem remains, plus hundreds of fragments in various stages of disarray -- many discovered in a rubbish dump outside an ancient town in present-day Egypt. There, excavators found papyri containing writings by Homer, Plato, Sappho and others, preserved by the area's dry climate.

Our understanding of Sappho, her art, and her life and times is similarly incomplete. Moderns revere her as the original lyricist, one of the first great practitioners of the poetry of intimacy and private emotion, but many of her songs seem to have been composed for public occasions (weddings, for example) and her life and career probably took place within an institution that had a specific social function -- educating girls from the elite of a prosperous island society. Her poems refer to friends, lovers, a brother, a husband -- but it's hard to know whether these were "real" people or part of a story being told. Even when a fragment is relatively intact, interpretation remains difficult. In her famous song to Aphrodite, for instance, is she asking the goddess to cast a spell on a girl who Sappho adores, but who doesn't adore her? Or does the poem, rather, express an ancient belief in erotic justice -- every heartbreaker sooner or later gets their own heart broken? 1
For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather she will give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love
even unwilling.2
Sappho has fascinated a succession of later writers, from Catullus to Swinburne to the 20th century modernists. Each literary epoch has produced one or more skillful translations; some of these -- Mary Barnard's, for instance -- have become literary classics in their own right. Now two new versions are available -- one by an

Anne Carson
acclaimed contemporary poet and scholar, another by a distinguished classicist already well-known for his translations and performances of Homeric epic.

Anne Carson is the author of seven books of poetry and prose, including Autobiography of Red, Eros the Bittersweet, and The Beauty of the Husband. Sappho has appeared often in Carson's earlier work, and her new translation, If Not, Winter, suggests the culmination of a life-long interest in her 7th century (B.C.) predecessor. Many will want this book because it is the latest work by a "great original," as Harold Bloom has described Carson, and her translations -- while true to the literal meaning of the Greek text -- are energized by her distinctive voice, her blend of austerity and intensity, and her Centaur-like sensibility: half avant-garde, half classical. As in her own poetry, Carson's style here conveys a powerful sense of controlled intensity:

...when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

If Not, Winter contains all the available fragments, from the mostly intact to the barely there (the last several pages collect isolated phrases or single words), and it includes the ancient Greek originals alongside Carson's renditions.  That's a luxury few publishers are willing to indulge, but it's a great addition. This translator seems intent not only on offering up a "finished product", impressive as that is, but also on conveying the elusiveness and uncertainty of the texts. Some
come to us in alternate versions; some we know only through third parties (often critics and grammarians) who cited them. They carry the peculiar weight that comes from our awareness of the missing poetry -- that enormous, absent collection which, we may fantasize, still exists in some other dimension. Carson uses brackets to represent lost language, conveying "the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp."

Like Carson, Stanley Lombardo in his new Sappho: Poems and Fragments 3 is less interested in trying to rebuild an ancient lost whole than in engaging "our momentary and receding relationship to the shattered fragments of the past." He has assembled seventy-three of the more intact texts into something resembling a modern poetry book -- that is, something which a reader can approach without necessarly having an extensive knowledge of ancient Greek lyric poetry, and without an overload of preconception or expectation. Lombardo has an ongoing fascination with recovering the oral and performative qualities of ancient poetry, and his translations, with their rhythmic phrases and sound textures, reward being read aloud. He finds a balance between rendering the poetry in a contemporary American idiom and preserving its ancient, remote qualities:

Some say an army on horseback,
some say on foot, and some say ships
are the most beautiful things
on this black earth,

but I say
it is whatever you love.

It's easy to show this. Just look
at Helen, beautiful herself
beyond everything human,
and she left
her perfect husband and went
sailing off to Troy...

The volume benefits from an intelligent and concise introduction by Pamela Gordon. Gordon summarizes many of the ongoing critical debates about particular poems, i
nterpreting Sappho's work as a whole, her relationship to 7th century Mytlinenean society, and her sexuality. And she provides a valuable list of
suggested further readings. Although Sappho: Poems and Fragments is not as comprehensive as Carson's translation, many readers -- especially those who are encountering Sappho for the first time, or teaching the poet in a literature or classics course -- may prefer a more compact edition.

Those wanting to know more about the historical background of the fragments will find much of interest in Margaret Reynolds' A Sappho Companion. Reynolds explores the different ways -- fair and unfair, accurate or ridiculous -- in which people across the eras have interpreted Sappho. She debunks some of the overly easy explanations -- for example, that Sappho's works were destroyed en masse by the early church fathers, in a fit of pious fervor. (The early Christian era, it's true, was not a very receptive environment for a female lyricist who sang of carnal desires and passions, but Reynolds points out that a comparatively mundane culprit -- a change in papyrus technology -- was more directly to blame). The Companion also includes an anthology of various efforts, from the classical period to our own, at translating the poet.  Many of these inevitably sound tedious, unintentionally humorous, or just plain dated -- caught up in the mannerisms and preoccupations of other eras. Earlier Sappho aficionados had few qualms about dressing her up as an eighteenth century aristocrat, Renaissance shepherdess, or Parisian decadent, but the net effect of these diverse Sapphos isn't exactly to make us more confident about our own attitudes. Translation, especially of ancient, fragmentary texts, is a mercurial enterprise.  That's part of its pleasure.

1. See Carson, Anne, "The Justice of Aphrodite in Sappho 1," Transactions of the American Philological Association 110 (1980): 135-42

2.Carson, Anne, If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (2002)

3. Lombardo, Stanley, trans. and Warden, Susan, ed., Sappho: Poems and Fragments. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co. (2002)