Sappho, across the years

I read today in the Guardian that a piece of 1,700 year-old papyrus has revealed two new poems (though not in their entirety) by Sappho. Well, “new” is a relative term. New to readers of that enigmatic poet of Lesbos who was born around 630 BCE and who died around 570. New to a world that expects immediate gratification — would Sappho have tweeted her new work? Would she have uploaded her poems to a website so her acolytes could read her words as soon as she’d committed them to, well, memory? (Often her poems were composed as wedding songs or celebratory anthems.) Wax tablets? What we have of her work comes to us from later sources and occasionally, like this new find, a tantalizing fragment is found on a piece of cartonnage from the wrapping of a mummy or from an inscription on a potsherd. I haven’t seen a translation of these new poems and given the condition of the papyrus, I have to wonder.

Sappho PoemI remember the excitement in 2004 when some lines of Sappho were discovered on a piece of cartonnage in Cologne. Because fragments of the poem existed, scholars knew they had something very special; the find supplemented the extant version and completed lines, offering an almost-complete lyric. In 2005, I read Martin West’s translation of what’s known as Fragment 58 in the TLS. I thought, Well, this is interesting but it doesn’t sound like Sappho to me. I can read a tiny bit of Greek and had devoured Mary Barnard’s translations in my university years (which are perhaps more true to Mary Barnard than Sappho) and hugely admired Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter when it came out in 2002. It is still one of my essential texts and has pride of place on my desk. I loved that she didn’t fill in — Mary Barnard tried to make sense of the gaps in the texts and her guesses were very intelligent and educated; but they were guesses.

When I read the translations of Fragment 58, I realized that I missed Sappho’s plain-spoken voice. Hers was a woman’s voice, full of longing and wistfulness and occasionally envy. I thought I’d try to make a version for myself so I found the Greek online and took my lexicon to our upper sundeck — it was summer — and tried to find the Sappho I thought I knew. Bees hummed in the oregano and the sky was as blue as any sky I knew in Greece in the 1970s when I spent time there. This is what I came up with:

A Version

You, pursuing the flower-girdled Muses’ beautiful gift, girls –

seize this clear-toned lyre:

my delicate body, now taken

by age, dark hair become white.

Spirit heavy, uncertain knees

(once as quick to dance as young deer).

I sigh – but what’s to do?

To be ageless, strong: not possible.

Once Tithonus, so they say, was swept up by rosy-armed Dawn

taken utterly by love, to the ends of the earth,

while he was young. Yet still grey age

seized him. And, oh, his immortal wife!

(This is in couplets but for some reason I can’t get the space between each to show. So imagine them, please.)

Continue reading “Sappho, across the years”

the eye’s rhythm

I spent a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon at the Vancouver Art Gallery looking at the Charles Edenshaw exhibition. It was wondrous. The silver bracelets, the headdress frontlets, the small model poles, the argilite platters. I loved sitting on a bench against one wall and listening, through headphones, as Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson told the story of how Raven gave females their tsaw. I’d already looked at the platters but having heard the story, I looked again. It’s a story of Raven paddling to the island of vaginas to bring genitalia (tsaw) back for the women and how he and his crew members were overcome with sweetness (which Ms. Williams-Davidson explained was orgasm), unable to paddle further than a few strokes, and having to return to shore to figure out another way to make this work. Wedging Fungus Man into the back of the canoe was the solution. Yes, he too was affected by the sweetness (do you know a man who wouldn’t be?)  but he managed to keep paddling. And in each platter, you can see his wide-eyed surprise and his difficulty at having to paddle while in the throes of that sweetness.

I looked at the spruce root hats woven by Isabella Edenshaw for a long time. She’d weave the hats and Charles would paint them. Sea lions, dogfish, ravens, frogs — each so beautiful. Isabella’s work is very fine. She used a concentric diamond or dragonfly pattern which you can see best around the brims, her surfaces so tight and even and clean. And what I noticed was how the patterns gave the painted images a liveliness, a sense of rhythm, and I wondered how much of that was intentional. A long marriage, a long working relationship, the hands and the eyes learning each other’s intimate vocabulary.

the moon in its last quarter

I woke about half an hour and watched the moon from my bed. It’s growing smaller, the last quarter, and for the last fifteen minutes it’s been hanging in a tall fir to the south of my house. It’s bright. And it’s my son Brendan’s birthday. 31 years ago this morning, right about now, I insisted we go down to St. Mary’s Hospital in Sechelt because I wasn’t going to wait any longer. I wasn’t actually in labour but Brendan was almost two weeks overdue and I needed for us to get on with life. No more sitting huge and helpless by the fire with an almost-two-year old (Forrest) racing around, out of reach, and people calling daily to ask if there was a baby yet. It felt like there would never be a baby if I didn’t insist.

So I did. And the doctor who was filling in for our family doctor broke my water at around 10:00 that morning and Brendan was born just in time for lunch. His. Mine. And we did get on with life. We’d recently moved into the house we were still in the middle of building, though we had a roof, a bathroom, and the windows were in, walls finished. No kitchen cupboards or tiles on the floor or even interior doors. But that all happened gradually and the baby thrived (he’s a mathematician now) and Angelica joined us two and a half years later. Birthdays remind me of the passing of time as surely as the moon does.

Yesterday I had a singing lesson, my first in more than 2 years. Somehow I gave up singing and I’ve missed it. Last Sunday we were listening to  a CBC feature on Tom Schilling, a Hamilton singing teacher. Tom was inspiring. John turned to me, said, “You should sing again. It made you so happy.” It did.  And I think it did more than induce happiness (as if that wasn’t enough): research tells us that it strengthens the lymphatic system, which in turn strengthens the immune system, and the controlled breathing is better for you than yoga. People with dementia (not me, not yet) have access to memories and joy when they sing that might not otherwise be available to them.

I loved being in S’s pretty studio again. I thought we’d really just do scales and arpeggios and work on breathing and yes, we did those things. But when I mentioned a duet I’d been listening to (kind of obsessively, actually), “Son nata a lagrimar”, from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, S pulled the music from her file and we tried it. I mangled it — I was singing the low line, Cornelia’s part, and it was the first time I’d seen the music. But how wonderful it felt to feel my voice inhabit, even badly, even briefly, those beautiful notes. And to enter, for a little while, the drama between Cornelia and her son Sesto. (“Condemned to grieve” — that’s a loose translation, I guess. )

And how wonderful it felt to drive home along the quiet highway, in sunlight, with my favourite singer, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, singing the duet with Drew Minter, listening to their voices entwine and echo, and to hear the little embellishments that experienced singers can add to a score, and to be able to hum along.


buttons, and a father’s voice

“We use our parents like recurring dreams, to be entered into when needed; they are always there for love or for hate.” This was something Doris Lessing wrote and I think about it quite often. My parents are dead; John’s too. Yet they are present in our lives in so many ways. The dishes we eat from came from them. Our silver. I see my father’s shoulders in my own. My mother’s hair is, or was, mine. There’s a lot we don’t share but I always wonder where certain things came from, which rich strand of genetic material twisted and frayed and tangled itself with another to produce my brothers and myself — so different and yet from the same source. My three children — I ask myself the same questions about the how, the where, the why of them. I can’t imagine a world without them and yet sometimes I wonder where they came from, in what mysterious marriage of cells.

I hear my parents too. For the past few days I’ve been sewing buttons onto my salmon quilt. I have five sizes of akoya shell buttons. I think that they are made from the shell of the bivalve mollusc Pinctada imbricata, a host for cultured pearls, and it occurs in Japan, Korea, and China, as well as the Indo-Pacific area, the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Mediterranean Sea, area around South Africa, and the Caribbean. The buttons are lustrous and irregularly shaped, a pleasure to run one’s thumb across. I’ve been sewing them down among batiked rocks. I have in mind stones, salmon eggs, fish scales, and bubbles. And this is wishful thinking of course because the final effect is, well, a bit clumsy. But I love the process, the thinking that happens when I’m sewing.

P1090478Anyway, I heard my father’s voice, asking, “You’re doing what? You’re sewing buttons on a quilt? Why would you waste good buttons?” And I had to ask myself why I’d do that. Because my father, as John observed, had a good bullshit detector. (His father did too, although sometimes I think it was faulty. “Can you make head or tail of this?” he once asked another family member as he turned the pages of one of John’s books. It was the book, if I’m remembering correctly, which won the Governor General’s Award for poetry. So therein lies a paradox.)

So we talked about this, how our parents make themselves and their opinions known to us fairly regularly. Which is them, in us. Them, as us? This is a mystery I’d like to untangle, unravel as I’ve had to unravel thread today, twisting it from under buttons where I’d made a mistake and looped it through the wrong way. My father’s voice asking why I’d waste these buttons which he would never have seen as anything but buttons, useful for keeping a shirt closed, a sleeve in place.


a deeper well

Our water comes from a well. There’s no pretty stone wall with a bucket to lower via a windlass, no moss or wild violets fringing the mouth. There’s a red steel cap – that’s all. And the well is deep, drilled into granite, encased in steel for the first 20 feet to protect it from groundwater. When the guy came with the drilling rig more than 30 years ago, he told us that there were many fissures feeding into the main shaft and that, depending on the time of the year and the aquifer, our water would come to us from different levels.

And it’s wonderful water. It always tastes the same – cold and wild from the tap. (I confess I can’t taste the difference from the deeper water and that coming from a source closer to the surface.) We don’t treat it. We had it tested and the results were excellent. Nothing bad, no arsenic (fairly common in our area). I’m touching wood as I write this. Reliable water – for drinking, for watering the garden, for any number of things we take for granted – is a gift.

I’ve been thinking about wells and their metaphorical value lately. The work I’m trying to do is slow and kind of plodding and I’m a little concerned that I’m not actually writing from the deepest place possible. I’m not sure how to do that with this material. There’s no solution apart from patience and maybe more effort. I cleaned my study, hoping that a tidy desk would be like a clean slate. And it feels good to sit here. I love my view – the woods to the south of the house and more immediately, a little porch where winter wrens (I know they’ve been reclassified as Pacific wrens but old habits die hard) come most mornings lately to search for tiny spiders in crevices between the cedar siding. I watch them move so quickly along the wood, pausing sometimes to sing. Sometimes a coyote passes the house. And elk.


Yesterday I had a small bonfire of the vanities, burning old drafts of manuscripts and bits and pieces it seemed silly to keep. I’d kept them for too long and they’d gathered dust, the wrong kind of dust. Not the useful patina of history, that’s for sure.

A few minutes ago I heard Emmylou Harris singing this song which completely resonated with the difficulty I’m having. I remember this song, from Wrecking Ball, one of my favourite Emmylou albums:

Did you tell your baby ’bout the bend in the road
‘Bout the rebel yell, ’bout the one that fell
Lookin’ for the water from a deeper well

 It’s timely to be reminded of the dangers of that trip to the well, hoping for the deeper water. But I’m still going to try.


a basket of spring

Yesterday was my birthday (the last year of my 50s…) and it began with coffee in bed and a pile of gifts — a Tibetan prayer box of old silver set with red coral, books (including The Woman Who Mapped Labrador, Edward Frenkel’s Love and Math, and The Golden Age of Botanical Art), four Provencal place mats bright with olive leaves and bees, a Tuscan baking dish, lovely things for the bath, and other treats. And the day continued sweetly with a little run down the coast on errands, the highway taking us through a landscape rimed with frost.

Last evening we drove to Oyster Bay for a splendid Indian feast co-cooked by friends June and Solveigh and shared with their husbands Joe and John as well as June and John’s son Jordan. The table, set with Meissen and a blue French tablecloth, was a perfect antidote to the chill outside, as was the warm fire burning in the great stone fireplace. A night of talk and laughter and friendship and more than a glass of sparkling wine.

And another gift: a basket of spring, created by June, with tiny narcissus, a butter-yellow primula, damp moss, and a tiny green-leaved plant which looked both familiar and not. Gaultheria procumbens, a cousin of of our native salal (those leathery leaves), and sporting bright red berries. I’ve been checking it out this morning — a new plant always has me looking it up in various places to find out the who, what, and where of it. This one is native to northeastern North America, occurs in Canada from Newfoundland west to Manitoba, and is a source for wintergreen oil. Its common names include American mountain tea, boxberry, Canada tea, canterberry, checkerberry, chickenberry, chinks, creeping wintergreen, deerberry, drunkards, gingerberry, ground berry, ground tea, grouseberry, hillberry, mountain tea, one-berry, partridge berry, procalm, red pollom, spice berry, squaw vine, star berry, spiceberry, spicy wintergreen, spring wintergreen, teaberry, wax cluster, youngsters… I won’t be distilling leaves or making them into tea but simply enjoying the beauty of its fresh green foliage and red fruit and looking forward to the narcissus coming into bloom in the next week or so.





When I went out to cut some kale this morning, the world was white with frost. A glaze of it on the steps down to the patio, every leaf of kale crisp with it. But the kale is made sweeter by the frost, one of those paradoxes which I’m sure has a scientific basis but which provides delight in spite of the science.

A good day to sew spirals into the salmon quilt — I sit in a big wicker rocking chair by the woodstove for this activity! And to notice how a nuthatch has joined the small cloud of chickadees feeding from the block of suet and the tower of sunflower seeds. Just one nuthatch, its elegant eyeliner making it a queen among the other birds.

And look at this bowl! I found it in a second-hand store just in time for John’s birthday. I filled it with a fresh Juliette goat cheese from the Salt Spring Island Cheese Company and now that it’s empty, I can see the beautiful patterns at its heart.

P1090469The coming year feels a bit like this — an elegant bowl to be filled with something fine, though maybe not as ephemeral as a fresh goat cheese.




the low light in winter

The sun passes from east to west so low in the sky just to the south of our house that we don’t see much of it. Some glittering through the trees, a moment in a small window, a brief shadow on the grass. This morning I woke just before 5 and saw the stars in a clear dark sky (a surprise because of yesterday’s torrential rain) and then I realized that I was also seeing Mars, red and still, a little to the southwest, and quite low.

We walked on the high trail today, to take advantage of the light. Lots of elk sign, but no actual elk. And fresh coyote scat. The creeks were too full for us to continue on our usual route so we wandered down to another area, passing tiny moss gardens with the most elegant ferns.


You take beauty where you can find it in January. These slender alders, for instance:


Or the bright note of one raven, flying high, the sound ringing above us in the cold air.