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Sappho: "Who ever desires what is not gone?"

In Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet, Philip Freeman tells us that Sappho, like Job’s wife, enjoyed a certain amount of wealth. It’s known that she married well, and had leisure time to write poems, but we have no record of who exactly her husband was. Until any poems about him are discovered, if they ever are, Sappho is completely unlike the wives who have appeared previously on my historical exams list. Penelope spends most of The Odyssey waiting for her husband, and Job’s wife spends most of The Book of Job waiting on her husband and wishing he would die (for whose sake, his or hers, I’m not sure). Penelope and Job’s wife are both, otherwise, silent and unseen. Their stories — if you can even call them that — are tucked neatly into the narratives that feature and belong to their men. Heroic men. Loyal and God-fearing men.

For we all already know this, do we not? Men act and women react. Honestly, more than any other common problem that appears in a creative writing class (hell, it appears with even more frequency on the NYT bestseller list), men acting and women reacting is pretty much my main pet peeve. Man cheats on woman, woman eats prays and loves. You know? But how can I blame students when their canon begins with and is built upon men who act and women who react. Man sets sail for the Trojan war and doesn’t come home for 20 years. Woman waits. Man comes home and says he’s woman’s husband. Woman isn’t sure so tests him. Man passes test and makes love to wife after all these years. Woman has to listen to him tell her all about all the other women and goddesses he’s had sex with while he’s been gone. Best pillow talk ever? Hardly. Another man loses his wealth, his children, and breaks out in boils. Woman must beg to feed herself. Man recovers wealth, children, and health. Woman gives birth to twice as many children as they had before. These women’s stories exist, and their existence only matters, on the periphery of their husband’s far more interesting and far more subject-worthy lives written and recorded for posterity.

Sappho, a breath of fresh air in all this ancient misogyny, lives her own life, has her own thoughts and feelings that take center stage, always, and she even, unlike those mortals before her, has an intimate and personal relationship with the goddess Aphrodite. Furthermore, her very existence, and her subject matter, does away with the husband / wife and the male / female binaries that are simply taken for granted in The Odyssey and The Book of Job (and the NYT bestseller list)Sure, Athene switched genders several times in The Odyssey, but the rules of attraction are different for the gods and in any case she isn’t so much wooing or sexing anyone so much as she’s setting up her chess board and putting all the pieces and players in place so she can ultimately kill hundreds of would-be suitors, brutally and in gruesome detail. Leaving Athene to her bloodbath, I’ll return our attention to the main-character mortals we have seen thus far in the canon who are, without question, heterosexual and married. Frankly, I hope we never find any poems about Sappho’s husband. His absence in her body of work is wonderfully appealing, as his story doesn’t even exist on the periphery of his wife’s. It doesn’t exist at all. History has spoken. Give a woman a pen and paper and what will she do? Write her own story. And write her husband out of it.

I’m reminded suddenly of contemporary writer Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd. “My husband moved to another city,” the narrator writes. “Let’s say Philadelphia. He went out the front door with a single suitcase and a portfolio full of plans, and that was the last we heard of him” (81). A few pages later: “I printed out the last ten pages to read them aloud, cross out, rewrite. By accident, I left them on the kitchen table overnight. This morning I came down for breakfast and found my husband in the kitchen. [… He] asked: Why have you banished me from the novel? […] You wrote that I’d gone to Philadelphia. Why?” The narrator answers: “So something happens” (83). While I love the meta-moment highlighting the power that a female narrator wields as writer, here again, though, the narrator’s desire for “something” to happen seems contingent upon the husband-character acting and those around him reacting. It’s an old goddamn trope and it’s tired. It’s worn out. Can we get rid of it once and for all? Please?

Thank god for Sappho. That she is in the canon revives my soul. Would I start a course with her, though, and ignore texts written before hers? No. Because her presence, and her absence, is felt more keenly in the context of the epics before and after her time. She is, of course, our first lyric love poet in the age of epics. And then along came the Romantics, who revived the lyric and established it as our dominant mode of poetry for the past several hundred years. In classrooms, I’ve often said I don’t think any kind of new poetry can come along and wipe out the lyric the way the lyric wiped out the epic. We love music too much. We love songs too much. We love love songs especially. But what if I’m wrong? Imagine what new mode might come along and edge out the lyric poem. In classrooms, I’ve also said that the lyric essay seems to be making a run for it — today, audiences read more nonfiction than poetry, and as the lyric establishes itself in the essay genre more firmly and securely with every new day it does seem possible that the lyric essay could potentially edge out lyric poems. But the lyric essay is not a new mode of poetry. It’s an essay form. If we even care about such boundaries between poetry and essay anyway. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know I don’t. But that I’m trying, at the same time, to figure out how to navigate my way through a world that does.

In any case, Sappho’s lyric love poems have stood the test of time — in practice — far better than Homer’s epic. Even when we have only fragments. Even when we have only one complete poem of hers. When, in contrast, we have all of The Odyssey. What is it about Sappho’s work that so compels us, that so makes us yearn and ache for more? Why do so many women writing lyric poems and essays today make use of fragmentation and erasure, again and again? What is it about absence, about loss, that so ensnares our deepest sentiments?

In A History of the Wife, Yalom writes:

Sappho’s poetry would have been unknown to almost all Greek wives, since most could not read, and all but courtesans were excluded from the male banquets where her poetry might have been recited. Some women, like Sappho, undoubtedly found pleasure in the arms of other women, as they do today, but then it would have been a very dangerous liaison indeed. The Greek wife was not her own property. Given by her father to her husband ‘for the purpose of producing legitimate offspring,’ she spent the greater part of her adult life being pregnant, nursing and tending children, preparing food, and producing cloth. She did not record for posterity the pleasures she might have derived from a lover. (25)

Sappho really was a special snowflake. I’m fascinated with her, her work, her life, her stanza. The way it was described to me is as a steady heartbeat that staggers and gets back up again. So when I saw an ad for Philip Freeman’s Searching for Sappho, I requested an exam copy from the publisher (thank you, Norton!) and received it quickly. I tore through it in an afternoon. And I was disappointed. It wasn’t what I’d expected, and it didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. (In my head, I was hoping to come away from Freeman’s book the way I’d come away from Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws, knowing more about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and in a way that really supplemented my readings of their works. But Searching for Sappho is not a tell-all resource.) Slowly, it dawned on me: that’s exactly the point. The title says it all: we’re searching, and we may never find her. “The Greek word eros denotes ‘want,’ ‘lack,’ ‘desire for that which is missing’” writes Anne Carson in Eros the Bittersweet. “The lover wants what he does not have. It is by definition impossible for him to have what he wants if, as soon as it is had, it is no longer wanting. This is more than wordplay. There is a dilemma within eros that has been thought crucial by thinkers from Sappho to the present day” (10). Later, Carson asks, “Who ever desires what is not gone?" She answers: “No one” (11).

Instead of a literary celebrity tell-all, Freeman speculates and attempts to piece together a portrait of what Sappho’s life would have been like, given what we know about women of a certain class in a certain time and place in ancient history. I have come to really appreciate how absent Sappho herself is in Freeman’s book. It’s sad. It makes me sad. Such sadness reminds me of how sad it is that so little of her work remains. Which reminds me of how little any of our work will remain. And compels me to want to say to young poets everywhere — sing your gorgeous hearts out, and do it beautifully, because I honestly don’t know what else could possibly be the point of our time here on earth. And don’t leave out the bad shit, because bad shit combined with gorgeous heartsong is, truly, life immemorial.

To close, here's one of my favorite passages from Mary Ruefle's "Poetry and the Moon": 

In the West, lyric poetry begins with a woman on an island in the seventh or sixth century BC, and I say now: lyric poetry begins with a woman on an island on a moonlit night, when the moon is nearing full or just the other side of it, or on the dot. Epic poetry was well established. The great men had sung of battles and heroes, whose actions affected thousands, and blinding shields and the wine-dark sea and the rosy-fingered dawn. Yet it is wrong to think that the clamor had died down. Historians tell us the times were not idyllic; in the Aeolian Islands, especially at Lesbos, the civilization was old but rapidly changing, torn by economic unrest and clashes between emerging political ideas and traditional principles. In the middle of all this then, a woman on an island on a moonlit night picks up some kind of writing instrument, or she doesn't, she picks up a musical instrument, or she doesn't, she begins to simply speak or sing, and the words express her personal feelings of the moment. Let's call her Sappho. One can hardly say these little songs have survived — for we have only fragments — but even this seems fitting, for what is the moment but a fragment of greater time? (13)

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