“I would not think to touch the sky…”

sky text

While swimming today, I watched a particular cloud gather and then disperse. At one point it resembled nothing so much as a fragment of papyrus and I thought of Sappho, how her poems turn up from time to time on pieces of cartonnage, the linen or papyrus used in ancient Egyptian funerary wrappings.

In John Berger’s essay, “On Vigilance” (the one I referred to yesterday), he recounts his own experiences swimming and contemplating the texts of trees and sky seen from the windows of a pool. He floats and gazes and realizes that he is also being read:

The curls of the white cirrus are observing a man afloat on his back with his hands behind his head. I’m no longer observing them; they are observing me.

I recognized that moment as I swam on my back, arms reaching up and over my head in my awkward back-stroke, watching, watching the clouds gather and fraying in a blue sky, and thinking for a moment of Sappho:

I would not think to touch the sky with two arms.

I wasn’t paying attention…

…to the moon’s phases and was caught off-guard last evening when the full moon rose over Mount Hallowell and shone into my bedroom all night long. The windows are curtained with white linen so the moonlight filled the room. I woke every hour or so, wondering if it was morning. And when it was, I tried to take a photograph of the full moon about to fall down behind the hump of Texada Island, fringed by trees, the sky a beautiful pinky-gold. And the moon refused to show up in the photographs.

It was the Mourning Moon, November’s full moon marking a time to give up old bad habits, old unhealthy relationships, to prepare for the season ahead. Time for one of those bonfires, I think, when old papers are turned to ash: unrealistic expectations, hopes, resentments. Time to use that eerie light to make a new path into the darkness of December.

Yesterday, tidying some papers on the counter, I was surprised to see this paint sample fall out of a sheaf of recipes. I’d been looking for it in early summer when we were planning to paint the back bedrooms to make them fresh and ready for the arrival of our children in late July. What colour should we paint them? asked John, and I said, Why not the colour we used in our bedroom? It was the lighter shade in a trio of yellows, the darker of which we’d used in the kitchen and the bathrooms. I couldn’t find the sample (because, bad habit, I never file this kind of thing efficiently but just leave it around and hope that I can find it when I need it) so we chose something close. But now, here’s the sample and I smiled to see that my bedroom, lit all night by the Mourning Moon, is in fact Morning Moon. The one which wouldn’t allow itself to be photographed.

morning moonAt one point when I woke, I looked out the east window (the bathroom window), and there were just a few stars following the moon, and I thought of Sappho, fragment 34, in Anne Carson’s restrained and beautiful translation:

stars around the beautiful moon
hide back their luminous form
whenever all full she shines
on the earth


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.)

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