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Sunday 5 October 2014



Study of a Nude: Edgar Degas, 1890-95, pastel and charcoal, 62 x 48 cm (private collection)

Tonight I’ve watched

The moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

in bed alone

Sappho: Fragment 168B, translated by Mary Barnard (1909-2001) in Sappho (1968)

File:Nebra Scheibe.jpg

The Nebra sky disk, dated c. 1600 BC. The cluster of dots in the upper right portion of the disk is believed to be the Pleiades: photo by Dbachmann, 30 December 2006; image by Rainer Zenz, 10 March 2010

Reclining Nude (recto): Jacopo Pontormo, 1519-21, black chalk, 270 x 423 mm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)

 Nevermore (O Taiti): Paul Gauguin, 1897, oil on canvas, 60 x 116 cm (Courtauld Gallery, London)


Mose23 said...

Half gone night, then gone youth and then that heart rending alone.

TC said...

Of the very many accomplished poets who have tried down through the years to do Sappho, the one dab hand in the bunch has been, it's seemed to me, Mary Barnard.

Nin Andrews said...

I thought at first this was your poem. So beautiful.

Poet Red Shuttleworth said...

Or walking dark pre-sunrise with bittersweet memory... and a laughing Wolfhound.

tpw said...

Thanks, Tom. Perfect little poem. She's apparently been coming out with some new work as well---see

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

I'm with you here, Tom--she was an accomplished poet, indeed; I'm fortunate in having her Collected Poems which was published in 1979 by Breitenbush Publications, Portland--a real prize, as the poem below demonstrates.

Lally said...

"dab hand"?

Carol Peters said...

Moon has set
and Pleiades: middle
night, the hour goes by,
alone I lie.

[Anne Carson]

Vassilis, thank you for the link to Mary Barnard's splendid poem

TC said...

Many thanks to all, on behalf of Sappho & co.

From the lately unearthed poems to be found via Terry's link, it appears the dear girl still has her finger on the pulse of what's happening.

For the rest,
Let us turn it all over to higher powers;
For periods of calm quickly follow after
Great squalls.

(Michael, by "dab hand" I meant "expert".)

erin said...

it is so strange how things come together, or is it only simply coincidence? i hardly care to know the difference. but just last night i came upon kenneth rexroth's translation of sappho's poem. i must say i vastly prefer mary barnard's, a voice more fully developed in this case, resonating with a more feminine persona, although when i stop to say why feminine i can't quite say why ... other than she dares to stay within the sadness of time.

but i bring rexroth's poem "when we with sappho" on the off chance that you might not yet know it, although i smile. i think you must know an awful lot.

erin said...

When We With Sappho

“. . . about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down . . .”

We lie here in the bee filled, ruinous
Orchard of a decayed New England farm,
Summer in our hair, and the smell
Of summer in our twined bodies,
Summer in our mouths, and summer
In the luminous, fragmentary words
Of this dead Greek woman.
Stop reading. Lean back. Give me your mouth.
Your grace is as beautiful as sleep.
You move against me like a wave
That moves in sleep.
Your body spreads across my brain
Like a bird filled summer;
Not like a body, not like a separate thing,
But like a nimbus that hovers
Over every other thing in all the world.
Lean back. You are beautiful,
As beautiful as the folding
Of your hands in sleep.

We have grown old in the afternoon.
Here in our orchard we are as old
As she is now, wherever dissipate
In that distant sea her gleaming dust
Flashes in the wave crest
Or stains the murex shell.
All about us the old farm subsides
Into the honey bearing chaos of high summer.
In those far islands the temples
Have fallen away, and the marble
Is the color of wild honey.
There is nothing left of the gardens
That were once about them, of the fat
Turf marked with cloven hooves.
Only the sea grass struggles
Over the crumbled stone,
Over the splintered steps,
Only the blue and yellow
Of the sea, and the cliffs
Red in the distance across the bay.
Lean back.
Her memory has passed to our lips now.
Our kisses fall through summer’s chaos
In our own breasts and thighs.

erin said...

Gold colossal domes of cumulus cloud
Lift over the undulant, sibilant forest.
The air presses against the earth.
Thunder breaks over the mountains.
Far off, over the Adirondacks,
Lightning quivers, almost invisible
In the bright sky, violet against
The grey, deep shadows of the bellied clouds.
The sweet virile hair of thunder storms
Brushes over the swelling horizon.
Take off your shoes and stockings.
I will kiss your sweet legs and feet
As they lie half buried in the tangle
Of rank scented midsummer flowers.
Take off your clothes. I will press
Your summer honeyed flesh into the hot
Soil, into the crushed, acrid herbage
Of midsummer. Let your body sink
Like honey through the hot
Granular fingers of summer.

Rest. Wait. We have enough for a while.
Kiss me with your mouth
Wet and ragged, your mouth that tastes
Of my own flesh. Read to me again
The twisting music of that language
That is of all others, itself a work of art.
Read again those isolate, poignant words
Saved by ancient grammarians
To illustrate the conjugations
And declensions of the more ancient dead.
Lean back in the curve of my body,
Press your bruised shoulders against
The damp hair of my body.
Kiss me again. Think, sweet linguist,
In this world the ablative is impossible.
No other one will help us here.
We must help ourselves to each other.
The wind walks slowly away from the storm;
Veers on the wooded crests; sounds
In the valleys. Here we are isolate,
One with the other; and beyond
This orchard lies isolation,
The isolation of all the world.
Never let anything intrude
On the isolation of this day,
These words, isolate on dead tongues,
This orchard, hidden from fact and history,
These shadows, blended in the summer light,
Together isolate beyond the world’s reciprocity.

Do not talk any more. Do not speak.
Do not break silence until
We are weary of each other.
Let our fingers run like steel
Carving the contours of our bodies’ gold.
Do not speak. My face sinks
In the clotted summer of your hair.
The sound of the bees stops.
Stillness falls like a cloud.
Be still. Let your body fall away
Into the awe filled silence
Of the fulfilled summer –
Back, back, infinitely away –
Our lips weak, faint with stillness.

See. The sun has fallen away.
Now there are amber
Long lights on the shattered
Boles of the ancient apple trees.
Our bodies move to each other
As bodies move in sleep;
At once filled and exhausted,
As the summer moves to autumn,
As we, with Sappho, move towards death.
My eyelids sink toward sleep in the hot
Autumn of your uncoiled hair.
Your body moves in my arms
On the verge of sleep;
And it is as though I held
In my arms the bird filled
Evening sky of summer.


TC said...


Thanks very much for that. Surely there is some sort of chemical element in the art of Sappho that has pervaded the poetry that came after her to a remarkable degree -- that is, the element of the palpable, the erotic, and, for the lack of a better term, the feminine.

This intense emanation her lyrics seem to possess has attracted and influenced poets in many languages and cultures, and male poets as well as female.

Going as far as she did toward the important acknowledgment of a basic physical element in all spiritual presence has provided a wonderful example for other poets, but also a challenge that is not easily met.

For me, the Rexroth poem is a response suggesting the art of Sappho has been comprehended and assimilated, at the same time it reveals to us, in the absence, something of the ferocity and power of emotion contained within Sappho's lyrics. When we read and really feel her, the strong artisanal element convinces us a high level of work is happening, at the same time the unbanked feeling gives us the impression that something as durable as metal has been heated to a point of ductility, of flexibility; in fact we can still feel the heat in the poems, when we touch them or are touched by them even now, from this great remove.

While respecting the intelligence and craft invested in the currently fashionable version of Sappho -- Anne Carson's -- again, for me, the Carson versions are cool where Sappho is... how to say it... en fuego.

I think maybe this has something to do with the sanitized correctness of the official safe (institutionalized) form of the art which has been approved by the mainline liberal poetry business (here I think of Poetry Foundation, American Academy, NPR and the other seal-of-approval stamps invisibly marked on all culturally-acceptable-for-polite-consumption art).

But Sappho -- well, I am reminded of Carmen Miranda's well known (once upon a time, deep in another century) advertising jingle for bananas, with the memorable admonition, Never put bananas in the refrigerator.

Butt nowadays it seems the life in everything, the risk and danger and passion in everything that is truly alive, comes by way of an app or a program or a coffee table book launch or some other form of cryogenic preservation... that is, pre-refrigerated.

Mary Barnard was wonderfully and generously tutored in her approach by Ezra Pound, who recognized and encouraged her unusual sensibility and ability. I think she's done Sappho better than any other modern poet in English.

Saying that, maybe I ought to add that for me, the finest translator of Sappho in a language close enough to English to qualify as at least a country cousin was Douglas Young, who did Sappho in Scots in the 1940s.

In Douglas Young's versions the wildness and heat and life are retained, as well as, perhaps, the strong hint that Sappho also had (perish the thought) a subtle sense of humor, a feeling for the common.

The very famous Sappho poem Kenneth Rexroth takes as text for his own poem has held off many earnest challenges over the years.

I like Young's version of it very much; my respect comes in no small part from having tried my own hand at it, and having had to admit to myself, Well, that's no contest, then.

Sappho: Aeolic Fragment

TC said...

Well, Sappho may have had that subtle sense of humour I've assigned to her, but patience for foolishness... maybe not so much.

Still, blindly plunging on into the migrainoid foolishness...

"I'm Chiquita banana and I've come to say - Bananas have to ripen in a certain way - When they are fleck'd with brown and have a golden hue - Bananas taste the best and are best for you - You can put them in a salad - You can put them in a pie-aye - Any way you want to eat them - It's impossible to beat them - But, bananas like the climate of the very, very tropical equator - So you should never put bananas in the refrigerator."

Through the fogbound cobwebs of the years it comes back to us that the "classic" Chiquita Banana song was not actually performed by but constituted a clever co-opting of the celebrity of Carmen Miranda, who had become the highest paid movie actress on the planet by the time (mid-1940s) the tune was composed -- by an ad agency team tasked with inducing Americans to eat bananas. The pivotal gimmick in the piece was the brilliantly mnemonic hidden-persuading equator/refrigerator rhyming hook. Carmen's movie shtick of that period included the wearing of amazing top-heavy fruit headdresses, crowned by a bunch of bananas. Accordingly the live and cartoon versions of the ad jingle routinely included the same bizarro get-up. The first recording was made by Patty Clayton. Then came Monica Lewis, The Terry Twins, & c. ...followed by a long line of Miss Chiquitas, all eventually blending in together to make a sort of gigantic euphorically healthy as well as musically inescapable banana cream pie.

Chiquita Banana Song, early animated version, vocal by Monica Lewis

A revisionist impulse seems to have inspired later renditions. Keeping in mind that this was always going to end up being United Fruit Co. advertising, and corporate advertising requires intermittent updating, even sometimes as regards to actual fact.. So by 1966, when Elsa (no relation) Miranda, vocalist of the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, recorded the tune, there was a significant change of the crucial message, which became "never put bananas in the refrigerator -- unless they're ripe".

Elsa Miranda: Chiquita Banana song (1966)

On the other hand... insomniac delirium setting in...

a weird Belafonte/Miranda/Busby Berkeley Bananagram mashup...