Aaron Poochigian puts Sappho together by taking her apart. What’s most striking in this slim, enticing volume of accessible new translations is Poochigian’s two-pronged approach. He translates Sappho’s poems and fragments into simple, limpid lyrics that are easy to imagine being sung. He organizes the fragments into thematic sections (Goddesses; Desire and Death-Longing; Her Girls and Family; Troy; Maidens and Marriage; and The Wisdom of Sappho) that work a kind of synecdochic spell, making Sappho’s lost oeuvre seem less distant and more imaginable as a whole. Poochigian’s technique (both as translator and editor), in addition to his thorough and informative introduction, works to give readers an unusually user-friendly version of this inexhaustible but elusive poet.
Sappho’s poetry is compelling for many reasons. Her reputation in antiquity and the fact that 90 percent of her oeuvre is lost are strong attractors, but such factors wouldn’t matter were it not for the power of the remnants we still possess. Faced with a daunting mass of fragments (we have only a handful of poems that are anything like complete), some translators have opted for the effect of lapidary shards, gnomic utterances that sound a little like Pound, who was of course himself channeling Sappho (“Spring … too long … Gongyla.”). Other translators such as Richmond Lattimore have turned out very competent Sapphic meters; others have chosen free verse. Carol Ann Duffy notes in the preface that “the list of poets who have translated [Sappho], written versions of her poems or written poems about her, is endless, but includes Ovid, Sir Philip Sidney, John Donne, Alexander Pope, Byron, Coleridge, Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti, Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ezra Pound and many poets writing in our own twenty-first century.” One omission from this list is Catullus.
Sappho’s power, especially in the longer fragments or almost-complete poems such as “That fellow strikes me,” “Leave Crete,” “Subtly bedizened Aphrodite,” “In all honesty I want to die,” and “Some call ships, infantry or horsemen,” tends to shine through whatever mask the translator supplies. Like Cavafy, a very different poet from the opposite end of the Greek tradition, she has the remarkable quality of sounding like herself in almost any translation; and in that sense it is very hard to translate either of these wonderful poets badly. Also like Cavafy, Sappho is a shape-shifter, changing her aspect according to the beholder. The fact that so little of her work remains facilitates the Protean quality. Thus if we have the queer Cavafy, the post-colonial Cavafy, the politically or historically or erotically minded Cavafy in various iterations, the same is true in spades for Sappho, feminist, Lesbian in both senses of the word, mother, lovelorn middle-aged woman, headmistress of a school, civic leader … the possibilities are as tantalizing as they are blurry.
Poochigian notes that “the nature of Sappho’s all-female group is a vexed and contentious issue. Scholars have presented a number of competing theories: Sappho as schoolmistress, a performer at symposia and even a leader of a thiasos (religious community) … there is evidence both in favour of and against each of these theories … The great German nineteenth-century scholar Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf … argued that Sappho was a headmistress of a Mädchenpensionat, or boarding school for girls, which operated along the lines of nineteenth-century boarding schools.” As Cathy Gere points out in her recent and excellent study Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, “every nation had its own Hellenism.” Every scholar and poet sees Sappho in their own image.
To turn from who Sappho was to what she has left us: if her oeuvre seems less frustratingly exiguous in Poochigian’s hands, that is because he refuses to fetishize fragments. He doesn’t (in the manner of Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos) “restore” a textual fragment beyond all recognition; rather he provides a context which, even if it may be mistaken, makes sense. Thus wedding poems, myth poems, poems referring to the Trojan war, are grouped together like shards of pottery painted the same color. Poochigian consistently chooses accessibility over vatic obscurity; he opts for rhyme over trying to reproduce Sappho’s complicated meters; he chooses rhymed couplets where she uses dactylic hexameter, making one heroically flavored meter stand in for another.
Occasionally Poochigian’s word choices are tendentious or odd or just don’t work. “Ventricles” for “heart” in “That fellow strikes me” is, as he explains, an attempt to convey the medical flavor of “heart” while avoiding the sentimental accretions that later accumulated over that word, but the success of his choice is dubious. And kalé is admittedly a word with a bewildering range of possible meanings, but “gorgeous” doesn’t seem like an inevitable choice, though it is certainly an interesting one, and in keeping with Poochigian’s insistence on Sappho’s penchant for pleasure, luxury, and style—all forms of “beauty.”
Anyone who wants to delve further into this luminous and ever-beckoning poetic world will of course want to consult other translations, beginning with Catullus’s 51 (Ille mi par esse deo videtur). Poochigian has tactfully omitted from his Further Reading list Peter Green’s or Erica Jong’s fictionalized versions of Sappho’s life. He does, however, include Ellen Greene’s Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches. As with any great poetry, Sappho’s oeuvre can be entered from many different portals, and the Sapphic realm of gold will have different aspects for different readers. For some, the dewy moonlit meadow will be the truest trope for Sappho’s imagination. Another emblem of the Sapphic world is, as Poochigian usefully reminds us, a different Helen (in “Some call ships,” my favorite)—one who is not the helpless pawn of two men’s lust but an agent who leaves her husband and child at the behest of Aphrodite, perhaps, but also of her own accord. Here Sappho gracefully, in the space of a stanza, turns epic on its head, smiling all the while.