If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho

by Sappho, Anne Carson
ISBN: 0375410678

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A Review of: If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho
by Christopher Patton

"All desire is for part of oneself gone missing." So writes Anne Carson in Eros the Bittersweet, her study of the twists and lures of love in Greek lyric poetry. Eros takes his name from the Greek word for lack or want. He takes his life from, and in turn gives life to, our fear that we are insubstantial, incomplete, inadequate. He is our hope that another person will complete us. When we meet someone who holds the shape of an empty space in us, desire arises, full-ness is promised, and Eros enters. Here, for example, is the god, overwhelming Sappho as he enters her in the form of heat and light:

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

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead-or almost
I seem to me
(no. 31)

Sappho's senses are blocked and yet charged to the highest degree. The intensity, found intolerable, is displaced into metaphor, the edges of the self dissolve and the poet becomes an amalgam of sweat and shaking fire and grass. Eros disassembles her. He is the dissolution of the self that seems to take place in the throes of passionate longing. He also assembles her: he is the hardening of the self that takes place when that longing is thwarted. For, once granted entry, Ero demands the lover turn her attention inward, to the passions he arouses in her, so that her isolation only deepens. He promises an end to the desire that he lives only to perpetuate.
What do we do then when this god, to whom we can say neither no nor yes, comes calling? Sappho suggests we make him our material, fashion from him a shape for our desires, a shape that sublimates the desire and makes something beautiful out of a crisis we find dreadful or intolerable. This gesture has a distinguished tradition: Petrarch, for instance, wandering in longing for Laura, "Seeking forever in what-ever place / Some crudely-copied shadowy hint" of her, and sculpting his longing and those shadows into sonnets. It is supple enough to take a number of forms: make something that won't die out of the fact that we are always dying; make something beyond craving of the fact that we are al-ways craving; making something whole out of our conviction that we are broken. This fashioning activity, in which eros is the material for a form that goes beyond eros, requires a capacious attention in which one stands at once inside and out-side oneself-as Sappho does in the poems that have made her immortal-that is, beyond eros, which is decay.
Sappho has been famed since antiquity for the calm with which she regards the passion sweeping her away. It must be said, though, that the first translation in Anne Carson's If Not, Winter is not very good at getting at this quality. Compare the most familiar version, by Richard Lattimore, of the "Hymn to Aphrodite"-

Throned in splendor, deathless, O Aphrodite,
child of Zeus, charm-fashioner, I entreat you
not with griefs and bitternesses to break my
spirit, O goddess;

-to Carson's:

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,
child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains,
O lady, my heart

Lattimore hews to the Sapphic rhythm, a stately irregular sequence of dactyls and trochees that holds back the headlong rush of thought toward consummation. Carson nods to Sappho's meter in the first line, then departs from it, offering in its place an accumulation of heavy stresses meant at least in part to slow and steady the line. But her free rhythm, though not without nuance, lacks the finesse and arranging power of the original. I suspect, and can only suspect, having no Greek, she is more true to Sappho's original phrasing; certainly her images have a distinctive brightness and clarity. And yet the form, the well-wrought urn, made out of passion, in which passion continues to storm, unhindered but contained, is lost, and with it the defining quality of Sappho's attention, its doubleness.
The "Hymn" is the only poem we have whole. The rest come down to us in scraps quoted by mincing Alexandrian grammarians, or in strips torn off papyrus sheets to mummify by mid-level Egyptian functionaries bent on a cruder sort of immortality. In other words, Sappho's shapes, which made a whole of the insufficiency that irritated them into being, are in our hands now as another form of insufficiency. At every torn edge the papyrus fragment points to what is missing. The fragment is a presence that radiates absence. So that the fragment is erotic, re-calling and leaning towards, but unable to reach, the missing part that would make it whole.
Carson's first achievement, striking enough to make one forget and forgive her choices with the "Hymn", is to see that the fragment is by nature erotic and simply to let it be so. Translators before her have generally tried to repress the erotic aspect of the form, hoping, through guesses, excisions, and sometimes reckless inventions, to make a stable whole safe from the contingency and decay that mark eros. Refusing to follow their lead, Carson allows the eros latent in the fragments to infuse them. Her fragments hide and reveal, seduce and resist, approach and steal away. They make love to the mind, in the old sense of courting, as the lovers who speak them would have made love to one another.
Her second achievement, at first blush incompatible with the first, but in fact its inevitable consequence, is to make these potsherds-ruined by the eros that as well-wrought urns they once mastered-whole on their own terms. Anne Carson, our very own chimera, part rigorous classics scholar, part post-modern rogue element, is quite willing to remake our sense of what "whole" is in the process. She declares her project in her title: "If not, winter." A fragment, plucked out of a thought with a before and an after, it holds itself back from us, beguiling. If not what, winter? Can't say. If not, winter what? Won't say. These refusals, imposed by the decay of the text and taken by Carson as aesthetic windfalls, make the part a new sort of whole, a very modern, a very post-modern sort of whole. If the mind of not obtains, the mind of winter obtains, necessarily. Here is the first half of the fragment in all its ragged heartbreak:

if not, winter
]no pain
]I bid you sing
(no. 22)

In another context, the brackets would be an affectation, but here they are an appropriate gesture towards the damage and indignities Sappho's poems have suffered on their way to us. They allow us, as Carson says in her introduction, to savour for ourselves "the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp." What's more, this way of setting the text, spare and yet bristly with typography, tends to reveal the myriad facets of words and phrases and to create associative flashes among them, until one begins to imagine at the heart of Carson's poetic project a sort of Borgesian post-modern encyclopaedia, with entries like "If not, viz. algebra, Boolean" and "winter, cf. Stevens, Wallace, mind of."
These translations savour ambiguity. Meaning here is neither single nor arbitrary:

]you, I want
]to suffer
]in myself I am
aware of this
(no. 26)

Meaning is, rather, a swarm, multiple, dynamic, formal. Consider the play of the first two lines, set mostly free, as they are, of syntax. I want. I want you. I want to suffer. I want you to suffer. I want to suffer you. That's the swarm; the shaping power is Sappho's characteristically cool self-awareness, which emerges in the next two lines, with just enough syntactic cohesion to hold the swarm together. "[I]n myself I am / aware of this." In myself I am. In myself I am aware. I am aware of this.
Set half loose of syntax, words and phrases associate in an open field, working as colours in a painting, vibrating as they approach one other, or as harmonics in a piece of music, stirring feeling without the thrust into meaning:

(no. 12)

Not that there is no meaning to this. But you will search in vain for a paraphrase. Carson is taking part, of course, in one of our poetry's current investigations. But without getting into a thorny discussion of the foundations of post-modern verse, I will just venture that her fidelity to Sappho-her sensuousness, her dispassionate study of her own passions, her almost mystical transparency-saves her from the indulgent semi-coherence to which so much open-form poetry succumbs.
If Not, Winter is beautifully made, with thick rough-cut paper, the text of the Greek in red facing the English translation in black. An indulgent amount of space is given to many of the fragments; often a whole page is given to a single line or a pair of words:

neither for me honey nor the honey bee
(no. 146)

As when a bell struck in a cathedral, the line seems to resonate forever, and to keep revealing as it diminishes sweet and startling new overtones.
The book is bulked out by notes at the back that showcase Carson's thoroughly schooled and yet roguish, unpredictable intelligence. In the first, she treats in some detail the word poikilos in the first line of "Hymn to Aphrodite", which, she says, has a host of over-lapping meanings-"many-colored, spotted, dappled, variegated, intricate, embroidered, inlaid, highly wrought, complicated, changeful, diverse, abstruse, ambiguous, subtle." She argues, against the usual reading, that the goddess's mind and not her throne is thus spangled. "Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind." Marianne Moore, a poet, like Carson, of wild associations found through hard, self-chosen austerities, would recognize that intricate, changeful, subtle mind:

"The Mind Is an Enchanted Thing"

is an enchanting thing
like the glaze on a
subdivided by sun
till the nettings are legion.
Moore, Sappho, and Carson all share that mind, naming it, each according to her lights, a katydid, Aphrodite, bittersweet. One pictures a mirror, spinning on an axis, throwing off light in all directions, trying to catch an image of itself as it turns.

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