I am going to work in fragments. A gather of fragments can be multiple things at once. This is one of the reasons I am working in fragments. The other reason is that this is how I (and anyone else existing after the Middle Ages) knows Sappho’s work. Fragments are and are not, requiring blanks equally as much as presences. They are also, in the case of Sappho’s fragments, ‘surviving’.
It was to start with a boat, there
being no single point of entry,
not even with mute and un-firm letters.
This is to say the verse
was neglected and wrecked to trace of a body.
What difference between vandalism and omitting
to protect. In an only academic way
it is interesting
to think up formal penalties such as the blotting
out of certain letters of guilty names, to lose the fact
of how they were called. For further revenge,
it might also be possible to –
In a statement of the classic idea of knowledge as a building in Petrarch’s ‘Familiare 2’, a building is metonymically knowledge. Describing its construction, he writes “on a single immovable foundation of literary truths, human labour can safely build.” So what is to be done when stability is lacking? For instance, if the works with which you might locate yourself were not tended to, if they were largely “…lost during the depredations of the early Christians”.
Writers and critics (and often writer-critics) in Renaissance Italy felt an urgent need to establish rules and practices for reviving Classical greats. After reading Tasso’s personification of poetry – he writes it “is…a searcher for and as it were a lover of beauty...” – you would be forgiven for thinking that poetry is a being of its own that men can only describe, rather than a human endeavour that is as much constructed as it is catalogued through criticism. The playfulness of this style seems symptomatic.
Boyer contends that women
“watch the form of men…act with each other in ritualized opposition to create the illusion that the actors upon the stage are in fact the scene…But there is another, real struggle…between the actors and the stage.”
Here, performative discord is taken to be always already a means of enacting gender. This language of theatre implies costume and audience. If I were to step onto the stage, should I avoid this theatricality entirely? I might for a moment become someone else who looks like me. This someone else might then hold her hand out to someone that I have little hope of reaching once I step off the stage.
It also implies a duration that is both specified and localised. It happens and there is a point at which it will not be happening. There might even be an interlude.
]not possible to happen
She climbed from the clear blest sea looking
like herself, her ribs unchanged.
so we may see [
Granted, Boyer works in the twenty-first century and elucidates the cultural production of gender in a more general sense. But she begins with literature, and Renaissance discourses on poetry are a performance of gender. These essays refer exclusively to he, to his. These rites of conflict obscure the monolith of male hegemony and set the scene for the marginalisation of women in poetry. A superficial image of variance is generated; the exclusion of female writers is naturalised.
Invisibility is an obstacle. It demands extrapolation of women in the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries. Where a man can journey through the text with comparative ease, concerning himself only with the line of argument, I have the additional work of interpolating myself into these unlucky harbours.
interrupted by a horrible tongue. I asked what it was,
many things being possible in this place
where you might arrive to your self.
She began again
]like young men
with anger spreading in the chest
to guard against a vainly barking tongue
The noise was now distant enough
to be made sense of, carried away
over the surface of the water
like fire in wind.
Pages were drifting beneath the surface of the waves
fractured by the light and moving as stars in air where –
full appeared the moon.
Thanks Sappho. That’s it exactly.
But the noise – a male poet who when living
relied too heavily on form now finds himself
incapable of coherent speech when not attending
to metre. It is a penalty
If the ‘right’ kind of tale is not available, how should I tell? I look to Dante, a vital force in the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. De vulgari eloquentia establishes a precedent for the use of low and high elements in the same work. What makes the vernacular so universal is the fact that even “women and children strive to acquire… [eloquence in the vernacular] …as far as nature allows.”. Setting aside the chauvinism, I write “it’s awkward to write around / sometimes but I’m glad to have / the arrow of you through my ribs”, juxtaposing the Classical and Renaissance image of an arrow’s wounds with the naturalistic speech achieved through contractions.
Dante provides me with further illumination on the nature of woman in The Divine Comedy. One way to be evil and female is to exert agency in relations, to be expansive:
“for this beast at which you cry out lets no one pass by her way…
she has a nature so evil…that her
greedy desire is never satisfied…after feeding she
is hungrier than before.”
I wonder if this beast is insatiable enough to spend twelve years writing a single poem that spans fourteen thousand lines and then some.
for anyone within hearing distance also.
This I interpreted from
to those who have quite had their fill
and if imagined in her tongue
even in another time
it would be best, better still if imagined
in such a way that the letters were as firm
as the ribs, a kind of harbour,
allowing for movement in place.
far whiter than an egg
the breaks and their spinning motion. It seemed
she was at once the craft, at another the water,
sometimes a blur I could not quite hold.
neither for me honey nor the honey bee
I didn’t mean it like that. Both of us are rowing
and who called up the honey bee. Whose body
is so many tiny bees humming.
I thought so.
Great detail. Should I take it as a thing or action.
Strategies for devaluing and erasure of women’s poetry form a pattern which the writer-critic Joanna Russ sets out in How to Suppress Women’s Writing. She focuses primarily on writers from the seventeenth century onwards, deducing models for placing women’s writing as exception and on the periphery from more recent works. Yet this censure and censorship is observable in the treatment of women’s writing from the twentieth century and the sixth century BC. I observe a circularity.
Reading Ovid’s ‘Epistula XV’ in this context, the poem’s enactment of suppression is laid bare. Ovid envisaged ‘Sappho to Phaon’ as part of the Heroides, a sequence of poems spoken by women who exist only in myth. It is an odd editorial decision – Sappho’s existence is a historical event. Her work may be part of “the most distant literary past”, but her life is not. While Baca finds it likely that Ovid removed ‘Epistula XV’ from the sequence himself, this was only to reduce the length of the Amores (in which the Heroides were anthologised) in preparation for publication.
The fact remains that, at one point, Ovid considered it coherent to place an imitation of a historical voice beside fictional women. Obviously, a non-fictional documentation of Dido’s voice is entirely impossible, and there were difficulties in imitating Sappho; her work was preserved in Aeolian dialect, rather than the standard Attic dialect. But her work was available in more complete form than in the twenty-first century, and Ovid discards and makes claim to imitation within the same work. Carson’s Sappho writes:
“And in it cold water makes a clear sound through
apple branches and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves
sleep comes dropping.”
These might be compared to another contemporary translation, for instance to Powell’s:
“Here ice water babbles among the apple
branches, the musk roses have overshadowed
all this ground and out of the flickering leafage
In the verse that is un-fragmented enough that a regular metre can be observed, Sappho tends towards the Sapphic stanza, concluding with an Adonic line. It is a metre of three lines, each of eleven syllables in predetermined lengths, followed by a line of a line of five syllables, also with specific lengths required. It was developed in the Aeolic dialect; both Powell and Carson duplicate it in English.
Compare Carson’s Sappho then to the Ovidian Sappho who speaks in elegy's alternating verse, which the historical Sappho never used (that we know of). He also discards her use of enjambment. His phrases are contained within lines and the dispersal of images often deployed by Sappho is lost. Her voice is made near-unrecognizable; this Sappho writes
“…I could neither weep nor speak.
Eyes could not form tears and tongue could not form words,
my heart was frozen with a cold frost.”
The banality of eyes crying and a verbalising tongue is unequal when beside the startling textures in “…from radiant-shaking leaves/ sleep comes dropping.”
How can this decision be understood? Russ posits that “[i]n its final, most subtle form, the denial of agency takes the form: A woman did not write this because the woman who wrote it is more than a woman.” For Ovid, this woman poet’s brilliance is an issue to overcome. Andreadis recognises
“…Ovid’s deep ambivalence in representing Sappho: the epistle conveys simultaneously a resentful, grudging admiration toward his influential female precursor…a misogynist eagerness to obliterate her pre-eminence as a rival poet.”
This Sappho yearns to be beside Phaon the ferryman, himself a mythical figure. Her poetry is not earthly. It has the power to make her “forever beautiful” and she self-eulogises, reciting an inscription for her own gravestone. The poet is rendered preternatural, her authority undermined. Ovid tolerates Sappho’s power by turning her into “a freak of nature”; a more-than-woman.
He extrapolates whilst claiming authority; his source for Phaon and Sappho’s relationship was a few Athenian comedians. Yet his interpretation prevails over other historical imaginings, such as the version in which Sappho marries respectably and dies of old age. The abusiveness of Ovid’s imitation stresses the importance of self-awareness. I acknowledge within the text that I am wrestling with how I should take her speech.
I find it indicative of the complexity of misogyny that Ovid does not seek to overwrite Sappho’s existence or poetry. Rather, he seeks to certain presences and blanks in the facts of her life and writing. For instance, he imposes the blank that is her ceasing to write, as well as inserting a presence by asserting a cause of death.
Her fate of drowning in the waters off Leucadia – as determined by Ovid in the poem’s final lines – is not final. As a method of restitution I turn towards and away from Sappho’s leap from a high cliff by depicting my speaker as finding her at sea alive and speaking. I acknowledge and seek to repair. Ovid inscribes on Sappho an abdication of lyric (“I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string”), but this need not be final, but it should be acknowledged that . I seize upon the fluidity of “Leucadia’s waves”.
If not too delicate, what brought you
to this sea. Are you here often.
as long as you want
What exactly is underwater;
what do we work on top of. And are we anchored
by the same rules as the men. If you had written epic
would epic be base. Does your distaste for war
make you not Greek.
]quick as possible
and the motion of light on her face
than chariots of Lydians or ranks
of footsoldiers in arms
With Boyer’s envisaging of a “struggle…between the actors and the stage” in mind, I muse on how genre is gendered; the effect of venerating writing sparse in detail and concerned with the public sphere. I consider Derrida’s ‘The Law of Genre’:
“As soon as the word "genre" is sounded…a limit is drawn…"Do," "Do not" says "genre," the word "genre," the figure, the voice, or the law of genre. And this can be said of genre in all genres, the two genres of genre, neither inseparable or separable, form an odd couple…simultaneously and indiscernibly saying "I" and "we," me the genre, we genres, without it being possible to think that the "I" is a species of the genre "we." For who would have us believe that we…would form a genre or belong to one?”
Boyer concurs; “[o]ne imagines that one can escape a category by collapsing it, but if one tries to collapse the category, the roof falls on one’s head.” A genre – fragments of poetry – has been imposed on Sappho’s body of poetic work by the events of history in part because her physical body is her.
The form is composed of details with few causational links; the movement between has been pared away. Although not by design, many fragments are paratactical; for instance “they became [ / for not”; a sense of distance is triply present here. Who exactly is this they to Sappho? The event has already happened and is being recalled from a position of the sixth century BC; the negative of the second line emphasises that it is an absence that I cannot quite grasp. Finally, there is the distance generated by what I cannot know due to fragmentation; the fragmentation of her work is the loss of some possibilities and an openness of others.
The most complete term for what Sappho always already is (and for what I am becoming) is not ‘poetess’ but it is not just ‘poet’ either. So I assert myself as a woman poet through a we; through a unity found through reinterpreting history. I will remain in place and move towards a we.
I decide to stop moving out of men’s way when walking down the street. I don’t mean to be rude, but to make them responsible for adjusting. It is a way of motion in place. I mean to do it indefinitely but stop after a week or so. Over and over I nearly walk into strangers; each time it is me who steps aside at the last moment. It is awkward. It is similarly awkward to tell a man who has invited himself into the room that is my poem that not to be rude but I don’t want him to rearrange it. The world is crowded when I don’t move in response to men.
Lyric poetry is also an uneasy harbour; influential figures such as Dante and Petrarch enacted misogyny within lyric. Zancani accents Petrarch’s representation of his beloved in sonnets as “an unattainable…constantly yearned for object.” The speaker of Dante’s canzone ‘The New Life’ stages his “spirits…[as]…ranting beggars /…[that]…call / upon my lady, pleading…”. The invocatory possibilities of poiesis yield ways of enforcing gender more intrusively within this genre. The lyric-I is capable of summoning a small army to harass. The figure of the woman is a site on which poetry is performed.
I do not envy the scope of respectable genres available to women during the Italian Renaissance; you might be a virgin, a wife, or a mother. On a trans-historical level, manhood is culturally produced as an inherent identity; womanhood is formed through identification with. Butler observes that according to Plato’s Timaeus, the category of the female is essentially passive - to be entirely open to other’s passing through her.
I am seventeen years old, speaking to a male poet who has never been a soldier and writes mostly war poetry. He asks me to allow him to get his hands on it – it being my poetry. I oblige; when he sends me his revision, a knot forms in my stomach. Some brilliant bits – just needed another pair of eyes.
Assuming that the poem is unsalvageable if this man cannot fix it, I delete the word document containing the poem. Years later I try to remember. Slivers of metal […] I the occurrence go like white horses in from the sea. I recall it partially.
After this I was hungrier and unashamed.
I needed to avoid greyhounds and waiting, to with my teeth
if necessary break from any narrow room.
I would not think to touch the sky with two arms
but Sappho I’ll open the windows with my hands. Sappho
there was no leap. You said it yourself. Sappho. I’m asking
you not to turn. There is no need to extinguish
but where you cannot speak
I use the Dantean model of the speaker and a Classical poet on a journey. But this journey takes place offshore from that “dark wood” and “deserted slope”. The speaker goes out from Dante’s shore towards the “perilous water” of the Ovidian Sappho.
Instead of waiting for the return of a departed man, the female poets are voyaging. The sea is symbolic of the fluidity of historiography; an acknowledgement of the unstable location from which I speak. It addresses the problematics of “historicist philosophy that affirms the ceaseless mobility of the historical process…yet must arrest history’s flow in order to impart a new direction to it.”
I don’t remember when I first heard Sappho’s name, but I know exactly when I first read Carson’s version of her. It was [ ]. This particular reconstitution of Sappho evinces a possibility to me: that of glinting beauty in half-forgotten lyrics. In other words, it moved me. Would it have moved me as much if I was not so drawn towards this woman poet?
]having been stained
You are a little sunken and have been
for a while. The scale of you could to the wrong eyes
seem uninhabited. Monuments are in
or under this sea.
do not move stones
but do write on them
a vine that grows up trees
the hostility of the sea
A hollow is as much a place as any other. The water
has reached over the rooves. Can you see the brick
of them. How what was is seen from a distance;
how it is that very few things cannot be moved past.
with what eyes?
Petrarch’s Rome and the remains of Sappho’s work are collections of archaeological fragments. The latter is a ruin; the former contains incomplete indicators of history. Sappho’s work is obscured, whilst Mazzotta emphasises “the muteness of the ruins” in Petrarch. The Baths of Diocletian are no longer what Petrarch imagines they once were but new experiences may be ascribed to what can be seen. It is possible to “ascend to the roof… [to find…] silence and desired solitude.” Their un-wholeness is an obstacle to understanding the past, to be overcome by studying them as representative, visible objects.
In ‘Familiare 2’, the narrator attributes significance to the ruins of Rome through past historical and literary events. The Petrarchan scholar ought to see what is there and what is known. Porcina and the Etruscan Army march in present tense through the streets of fourteenth century Rome; Tullia is in her carriage and Cicero has been dead since forty-three BC. I find Sappho in the Aegean despite several millennia of distance.
Dante differs in his approach to the revival of Classical literature. Though he does not “endorse…[Ovid’s]…moral universe”, Dante is closer to him than I expect in that he also re-writes a Classical poet. I imagine this similarity is something Dante would not care to admit. The literary past is addressed through extrapolation; he revives Virgil to enable a dialogue between the poet and his speaker.
I emulate the cross-purposes in speech. Dante’s Virgil asks “why do you not climb the delightful mountain…?” to which the speaker responds a question “Now are you that Virgil…?”. But where the Dantean Virgil parts from the speaker on his reunion with Beatrice, Sappho remains present after I recall a past relationship.
Likewise, the reassembly of Rome’s fragments in writing is too great a task for the one person. Petrarch exasperatedly asks, “where shall I end?”.
I need an imaginative and historical approach. The poem is driven by both Dantean and Petrarchan views of imitation. I bring the figure of Sappho into the poem and she speaks only what survives of Sappho’s work. I avoid Dante’s ventriloquizing of Virgil, just as Petrarch avoids extending beyond what is there.
for you beautiful ones my thought
is not changeable
That’s very sweet. Sappho it’s awkward to write around
sometimes, but I’m glad to have the arrow of you
through my ribs. It’s proving an excellent flight.
whoever he is who opposite you
It’s an ache but never pyrrhic.
lyre lyre lyre
Sappho Saffo Sappho
you who I
How should I capture a sense of Sappho’s work journeying through history? At the time of the Renaissance, only “[t]wo of her poems and a number of fragments were preserved”, most notably the fragment translated as “He is a god to me.” But even these minutiae rippled across Europe; near to the time of the fragment’s publication, two notable women poets had their works published. Both make differing claims to Sappho.
Labé asserts that she is in possession of the lyre once used by Sappho; the same skill has been placed in new hands. Hailed as “the new Sappho of our day”, Stampa was significant in both the Sapphic and Italian Renaissances. Moreover, by tracking the flow of manuscripts through sixteenth-century Europe, Tylus concludes it likely that Stampa read what is now called fragment thirty-one.
I received my copy of If Not, Winter from my then-girlfriend. She had copied out quotes that reminded her of me onto gold slips of paper and placed them alongside the original. After the relationship ended, I removed her rewritings from the book and kept them both in separate places.
There is an implication of displacement in naming Stampa the new Sappho, as if only one woman may be like Sappho at a time. Yet Stampa herself hopes that her readers will aspire to walk with her, “donna a paro” (“equal to that lady”). A beside-ness is possible. By imitating Stampa, I give a sense of accumulation in women’s poetry. The speaker and the figure of Sappho pass over her “clear, blest…sea”, and the preeminent hurt of “darts…burning, bitter, sharp and tight” finds a new context – that of reaching for a body (of work) made un-entire by sabotage.
This is not entire.
I used to weave crowns.
I know of this.
with what eyes?
And who let me. This paring that has been done.
like your self, only yourself. How would I know you.
out of the unexpected
Through this cohabiting I seek to circumnavigate the problematics of displacement proposed by Bloom. The Bloomian model, when applied to women’s writing, becomes another way of generating Cixous’ narrow room. Poets need not eclipse those who came before; the invocation of the dead may be painful, but not necessarily unlucky. The page might be regarded as a kind of room, and the two voices push in different directions at its edges. Where the lines overlap and where Sappho is named more frequently, I am reaching more urgently. I suspect I cannot meet her, not even in this white room of my choosing. I can only coincide.
Editing and criticism is steered toward a canon that puts women writers in competition with one another for limited space, but it is possible to undermine this authority. The figure of Sappho’s and my speaker’s voice share a kind of antilabe, in imitation of fragment fifty-one; “I don’t know what to do / two states of mind in me.” Antilabe is also a technique I observe and admire in Petrarch. I can admit that.
with these eyes of my body, though their beams
have been twisted. Sappho how decent
it is to happen alongside you.
]and know this
I’ve been at this
ten years now. Is that any more than a detail
to you. I don’t know when that war poet is
I the occurrence go like white horses in from the sea.
If it was up to me
would you hold my hand
Sappho to where
I might go
do you go
A woman writing is “wrestling with the mighty”, but the men who naturalise the strait of the room are not dead.
will we ever walk widely by ourselves?
as long as you want
I truly want to be singing.
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