Wednesday, July 14, 2010

If Not Winter by Sappho (trans. Anne Carson)




If Not Winter:  Fragments of Sappho translated by Anne Carson is a collection of the few pieces of work written by Sappho that still exist.  Only one poem has survived the millennia and the rest of merely fragments, often of such poor quality that only a word or single phrase has survived.

Carson, the translator, is a scholar and she takes these fragments and presents them as they are--Greek on the left and her English translation on the right.  I am no Greek scholar so I cannot say how well she does in her translation but her talent is inarguably present in her ability to communicate a poetry even in the fragments.  Now, I am not suggesting that I was able to draw deep meaning from the fragments that are a single word.  However, there are pieces that Carson puts together in such a way that it is not unlike reading a cummings poem where the words do not necessarily go together grammatically but somehow evoke emotionally something that fits so perfectly one cannot imagine any other possible interpretation.  

Here is only one example of the magic Carson manages to create, from fragment 21:












]





]





] pity





] trembling





]





] flesh by now old age





] covers





] flies in pursuit





]





] noble





] taking





] sing to us



the one with violets in her lap





] mostly






] goes astray
So much of the original text is obviously missing and yet so much remains that it takes only a little imagination and a little faith to fill out the flesh of the emotional meaning within the phrases we have.

Another example of Carson's brilliance is demonstrated in her choosing to place fragments 74A, 74B and 74C on a single page in three columns.  Unfortunately, I cannot get the layout to work for me but the four words included on these fragments are:  goatherd (74A), longing (74B), sweat (74C), and roses (74A).  The poem is there, implied, and it doesn't take much to read these four words and then fall into silence and sighs of appreciation.

There are pieces that, when read, sound incredibly contemporary, almost confessional and scatalogical.  It is easy to forget that these poems were written 6 BCE by a woman who was appreciated as a great writer in her time, even considered, as Carson informs the reader in the introduction, to be a living Muse, the tenth muse, by none other than Plato.

After reading this book, I can easily see why.  Carson has done a superlative job and I hope to add this book to my permanent library soon and want to commend my library for actually having a copy of it for me to adore in the meantime. 


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