Thursday, April 15, 2010

Poem - Sappho

For someone whose name many know today and was regarded in antiquity as a great poet,  few details are known about Sappho outside of what is gathered from her poetry.  She lived in the 500s BCE (Before Christian Era), born on the island of Lesbos which, though closer to mainland Asia Minor (now Turkey), is a part of Greece.  Thanks to her prominence as a poet and her involvement with the cult of Aphrodite,  the education of unmarried women, and her erotic/love poetry, she is popularly - possibly erroneously - associated with lesbian poetry.   (In fact, it's because of that association that the term "lesbian" came about, as her home was Lesbos.  She herself seems to have been married - to a man - and had a daughter.) It's pretty amazing how little of her poetry has come down intact: one complete poem and two almost-complete; lines from 50+ other poems, and assorted fragments on papyrus and pottery shards.  What I like about this one is how perfectly it describes what we have all experienced in the presence of a beloved, and how well it's traveled through over 2,500 years.   This translation is by John Frederick Nims (1913-1999), a poet, critic, and academic.

There’s a man, I really believe, compares with
any god in heaven above!  To sit there
knee to knee so close to you, hear your voice, your
         cozy low laughter,
close to you – enough in the very thought to
put my heart at once in a palpitation.
I, come face to face with you even briefly,
         stand in a stupor:
tongue a lump, unable to lift; elusive
little flames play over the skin and smolder
under.  Eyes go blind in a flash; and ears hear
         only their own din.
Head to toe I’m cold with a sudden moisture;
knees are faint; my cheeks, in an instant, drain to
green as grass.  I think to myself, the end?  I’m
         really going under?
Well, endure is all I can do, reduced to……
                                                                                         Sappho - Greek

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