Monday, April 26, 2010


(Sappho, painted by Charles Mengin, 1877)

Despite my mother flooding our house with books as much as she was able, we often lived in places without libraries and for me they were magnetic, magical places. (Still are.) When I went to college, I went to the massive university libary every day. I often simply wandered the stacks, pulling out volumes whose title looked interesting, stacking them in heaps at my carrel to browse or check out. I looked up "lesbian" and "gay" in the card catalogue but was still too frightened to check one of these books out, even from the women I suspected were all dykes at the front desk.

Until one day, I was walking along a dimly lit, dusty row and a small red volume literally fell off the shelf in front of me. I was startled, and glanced inside before returning it to its place: It was a tiny collection of Sappho's poetry. I felt cold run down my spine, and looked around to see if anyone else had witnessed this. But nobody was near. I stood there and read until a fragment, about a red dress, sent more shivers through me. After that, I was able to find the courage to check out "lesbian" books, always stuffed between several other innocuous tomes.

Biography of Sappho by Alix North
"One of the great Greek lyrists and few known female poets of the ancient world, Sappho was born some time between 630 and 612 BC. She was an aristocrat who married a prosperous merchant, and she had a daughter named Cleis. Her wealth afforded her with the opportunity to live her life as she chose, and she chose to spend it studying the arts on the isle of Lesbos.

"In the seventh century BC, Lesbos was a cultural center. Sappho spent most her time on the island, though she also traveled widely throughout Greece. She was exiled for a time because of political activities in her family, and she spent this time in Sicily. By this time she was known as a poet, and the residents of Syracuse were so honored by her visit that they erected a statue to her.

"Sappho was called a lyrist because, as was the custom of the time, she wrote her poems to be performed with the accompaniment of a lyre. Sappho composed her own music and refined the prevailing lyric meter to a point that it is now known as sapphic meter. She innovated lyric poetry both in technique and style, becoming part of a new wave of Greek lyrists who moved from writing poetry from the point of view of gods and muses to the personal vantage point of the individual. She was one of the first poets to write from the first person, describing love and loss as it affected her personally.

"Her style was sensual and melodic; primarily songs of love, yearning, and reflection. Most commonly the target of her affections was female, often one of the many women sent to her for education in the arts. She nurtured these women, wrote poems of love and adoration to them, and when they eventually left the island to be married, she composed their wedding songs. That Sappho's poetry was not condemned in her time for its homoerotic content (though it was disparaged by scholars in later centuries) suggests that perhaps love between women was not persecuted then as it has been in more recent times. Especially in the last century, Sappho has become so synonymous with woman-love that two of the most popular words to describe female homosexuality--lesbian and sapphic have derived from her. "

"To Andromeda"

That country girl has witched your wishes,
all dressed up in her country clothes
and she hasn't got the sense
to hitch her rags above her ankles.


He is more than a hero
He is a god in my eyes--
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you--he
who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing
laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast. If I meet
you suddenly, I can't
speak--my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,
hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body
and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn't far from me


Stand up and look at me, face to face
My friend,
Unloose the beauty of your eyes...


Love shook my heart,
Like the wind on the mountain
Troubling the oak-trees.


The Moon is down,
The Pleiades. Midnight,
The hours flow on,
I lie, alone.

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