Among Dim Shapes: Reading Sappho in Quarantine
July 14, 2020

As of late, I have been entertaining myself with a particular subset of YouTube videos: influencers pretending to go to Coachella. Beginning with the necessary pandemic disclaimers, YouTubers launch into festival makeup tutorials and clothing hauls with a kind of deflated vigor. Nearly every statement is made in the conditional perfect tense, some variation of “would have,” “could have,” or “should have;” these phrases are also called “modals of lost opportunities.” There is, indeed, an inescapable sense of loss that pervades the videos, the idea that the festival, in some other universe, would be held in all of its flower-crowned and fringed glory. Some influencers even embark on recreations of the festival at home, hanging streamers and string lights, blasting music and dancing alone, wearing the now-moot VIP wristbands.

Influencers make money off this content, but regardless of necessity, it is interesting to watch people “attend” a now-hypothetical event. This extends beyond both the “Homechella” phenomenon; these days, it is not uncommon to hear people declare that they have decided to get dressed daily, to continue grooming routines, and put on some clothes, tethering themselves to a known sense of order. I understand the impulse to adhere to an imaginary functioning world. To get dressed (or alternatively, feel guilty about not getting dressed) means that you are holding yourself accountable to the agreed-upon standards of productivity and decency, and that one day, when we make our grand return to the world, we will resume our positions as usual.


]
] might accomplish
]
] I want
] to hold
] said
]

This fragment comes towards the middle of If Not, Winter, Anne Carson’s translations of the writings of a Greek poet, Sappho, which have been collected, piecemeal, from small, nearly disintegrated papyrus fragments. Like the majority of the poems in If Not, Winter, the piece above is conspicuously incomplete, fluttering against a wall of absences. There is no real rhythm to it, though one can infer from the brackets (which Carson uses to gesture to lost words and phrases), that likely there once was. Regardless, there is an urgency to the work; the scattered elements — the missing potential accomplishment, the yearning, the holding, words spoken in the past tense — make for a seductive poetic puzzle. The idea of accomplishment hints at some adherence to structure, a desire for closure, but the preceding “might” keeps the achievement in limbo. It seems a fabulous irony that the piece of papyrus upon which the work was written landed in modern culture similarly robbed of closure: without the rest of Sappho’s words, this poem, like the accomplishment, remains stranded in an unfinished state. The result is a poem devoid of, yet thoroughly haunted by, finality.

Regardless of whether she was controversial or inscrutable, Sappho has just barely survived in her own hand.

Though Sappho, the archaic Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, was deemed the “Tenth Muse” by Plato, precious little of her work has survived the test of time. There are many theories as to why Sappho’s work did not survive in full; some believe that the early church, disapproving of her morals, had her work burned. Some say that by the time her work could be reproduced, printers weren’t making scrolls anymore — they had switched over to codices, bound papers, a form which did not suit her work. Another theory posits that Sappho’s poetry was linguistically inaccessible; Sappho spoke an Aeolic (also called Lesbian) dialect that contained obscure phrases and arrangements no longer used in the Attic dialect that had become the norm for literary work.

Regardless of whether she was controversial or inscrutable, Sappho has just barely survived in her own hand. Carson’s brackets serve to acknowledge this loss within the fragments, and aid in emulating their fragility. Carson writes:

“Brackets are exciting. Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp — brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.”

One cannot read these fragments without conjuring the world and circumstances within which they existed.

It seems a poetic choice to incorporate loss into the presentation of the work; little can be confirmed about Sappho’s life, but it is known for certain that she spent much of her time in exile in Sicily — a punishment for her controversial political activity in Lesbos. Though I imagined her as living a Dionysian romp of song and lovemaking, many of her poems are written from exile, at which point she was excluded from the rituals, gatherings, and customs that had come to define her life in Lesbos.

The sparest works in If Not, Winter, are most among the most affecting: some of the fragments read almost like eccentric shopping lists, comprised of single terms like “soda”, “celery,” “gold ankle-bone cups,” or “mythweaver.” I find them touching at this moment — like small islands in a large sea of uncertainty or souvenirs from a lost world. The words work like synecdoche; one cannot read these fragments without conjuring the world and circumstances within which they existed. In equal parts earthly and ephemeral, these fragments convey both a complexity and a wistful nostalgia for the ordinary.


These days, the only thing my parents seem to be able to do is to make lists. There is the list of groceries we need, the list of cleaning supplies, the list of books to read and films to watch, the list of friends to call, and the list of friends who have passed away. My father tallies the dead on his fingers (now spanning two hands), closing his eyes and tilting his head up, wondering if he’s forgotten someone. My parents do little but go over and over these lists, opening and closing the refrigerator and the newspaper, hoping something new will appear. We have found ways of punctuating our days: making calls, taking walks, and quietly praying that methodical devotion will keep us from drifting away.


Much of Sappho’s poetry suggests an unmoored quality: a break with structure and definition. On otherwise blank pages, stark, boundless lines convey a lack of presence, existence in some place beyond reality. Take, for example, fragment 36:

I long and seek after

Without punctuation or specificity to demarcate it, this lone line floats on the space of the page. While “long” and “seek” may appear to be somewhat synonymous, they represent a critical difference between feeling and doing. Longing connotes something intangible: when one longs, the body remains still while the mind wanders out, stretching towards the object of affection. In contrast, the act of seeking is physical, a search for something concrete. While seeking, the speaker’s body attempts to reunite with the mind, following behind and gathering the emotional slack. “After,” provides more an idea of space than time; it is as though the speaker is in a constant cycle of seeking after herself, one part fruitlessly attempting to catch up to the other. Lacking punctuation, the poem is a continuous stretch, an endless chase.

In many of the fragments, there exists a slight lag between the speaker and the body, like watching a film out of sync. In fragment 46, Sappho writes:

and I on a soft pillow
will lay down my limbs

In this fragment, the speaker, the I, and the body, the limbs, act independently from one another. The jaunty spacing, the first line sliding past the second, reinforces the separation. The mind arrives at an idea that it will enact on the body at a later time, an act which, in the future tense, exists not in reality but in the immaterial space of the possible. There is tenderness in the “soft pillow;” the body is not being forced, but gently dealt with as something perhaps passive, but still deserving of care.


I am reading a GQ profile on Robert Pattinson in quarantine in London. He is staying in an apartment paid for by The Batman production he was set to begin filming. He is trying to find out how to microwave pasta; in the duration of the piece, he nearly burns down his kitchen in pursuit of this goal. He is properly unhinged. The author, Zac Baron, continually remarks how Pattinson is “suited to the experience,” that his practices of seclusion and the general air of paranoia make him near perfect for this cultural moment:

“‘I almost immediately totally lost all sense of time,’ Pattinson says. He got that feeling, the one we all have now, of pinwheeling through space and anxiety and history. He says it was actually very familiar, that feeling. ‘It’s a complaint which a lot of people have about me. This total… I don’t have a sense of time.’”

Pattinson catastrophically miscalculates the frequency with which he has emailed an artist he admires. He believes it has been years between emails when in actuality it has been weeks. Due to the barrage, the artist does not want to speak to him and passes his messages off to an actress so she can answer them instead. Pattinson moves quickly from this point, and I muse on just when I last called my friend, when I took that walk, or when my grandmother died (was it 2 years ago or 5, and what’s the difference anyway?). Time elasticizes and I stop thinking about it.


Throughout If Not, Winter, the speaker fixates on the concept of adornment: maidens bearing arms of roses and laps of violets, floral garlands hung around soft throats and headbinders placed atop fair hair. This ritual adornment is “ornamental,” a translation of the word kosmos, having the power to order and arrange. Carson’s endnotes reveal the mythic origins of kosmos:

“…cosmos was first assembled out of chaos, when Zeus threw a veil over the head of the goddess of the underworld, Chthoniē, and married her…Once veiled by her bridegroom, the dark and formless chthonic goddess was re-named Gē, goddess of the female world, decorous and productive wife of Zeus.”

For the speaker, these crowns and flowers serve to organize their wearer and hold the ability to memorialize. Mentions of specific and notable women (Aphrodite, Helen of Troy, the speaker’s mother), women worth keeping in memory, follow floral and “spangled” description. The adornment grounds them in the poem as the veil did Chthoniē, transforming them into visible, knowable entities.

Sappho’s speaker stands apart from the ornamented women, describing herself as somewhat unbound and un-capped; she conveys a fear that not partaking in this orderly feminine world will prevent her from being remembered. In poem 98B, the speaker, in exile, searches in vain for a headbinder to give to her daughter, Kleis:

but for you Kleis I have no
spangled — where would I get it? –
headbinder: yet the Mytilinean[

] [
] to hold
] spangled

these things of the Kleanaktidai
exile
memories terribly leaked away

The final phrase is unhitched from the beginning of the line and physically leaks out of the bounds of the poem, emphasizing its meaning. Like a soul detached from its body, exile pushes the speaker from society, forcing her to grasp at a material ritual as a means of participation. Without a legitimizing ornament, Kleis cannot be “held,” and will herself become a distant memory. Symbolically, the headbinder can fix this; the ritual of it would keep both Kleis and her mother within Greek tradition, placing them among legends like Aphrodite and Helen.

In poem 55, the speaker delves further into this anxiety:

Dead you will lie and never memory of you
Will there be nor desire into the aftertime — for you do not
share in the roses
of Pieria, but invisible too in Hades house
you will go your way among dim shapes. Having been breathed out.

“The roses of Pieria” are symbols associated with the Muses. In not sharing in the world of the Muses, the world of epic and myth, the unadorned woman finds herself on the outskirts of history, apart from Grecian culture. Furthermore, by living without floral adornment, a woman cannot secure her identity or memory in society, hence the speaker’s grave warning.

We seek out narratives that suit what’s left, fill the emptiness with imagination, throw a cloak over chaos and call it cosmos.

In her notes, Carson writes that poem 55 “threatens the woman with an obliteration which it then enacts by not naming her.” Unnamed and unadorned, the woman remains an “invisible” figure. The present perfect and past tense give the sense that this death is an unending exhale; the figure is everywhere and nowhere in a place the Muses don’t speak of, that the community does not see. The soul is both breathed out of the body it once occupied, and breathed out of history, intangible as air.


One of the many horrific facets of the COVID-19 pandemic is an inability to properly memorialize the dead. I fear death more than ever, not because it feels close, but because I know it cannot be done properly; we cannot be present to bury our grandparents, friends, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers, anoint the bodies, sit Shiva, or, simply, gather.

As I read Sappho at 4 pm on a Tuesday, I realize I have spent my day in pajamas without speaking to anyone at all. I feel a familiar fear settle in; I am having trouble distinguishing myself in isolation. A prescient question jumps forth from Sappho’s work: will I survive history? I wonder if, in some time most likely far from now, after getting half-dressed and making lists, I will be able to be a part of the functioning world again, or if I’ll find that I can no longer operate in the way that is required of me, and thus, slip further from the community I desire to be a part of. Sappho made her way here by the skin of her teeth, and even still, no one can know exactly to what degree these translations speak to her intention. We seek out narratives that suit what’s left, fill the emptiness with imagination, throw a cloak over chaos and call it cosmos.

I read, fitting my world inside of Sappho’s brackets, and Sappho’s world inside my own.

So, for now, I attempt to sate whatever is in me that is desirous and fearful. I lay my limbs on soft pillows, turn on the television, and turn off certain parts of myself. I try to view new vacancies as a torn papyrus, a free space of imaginal adventure. I read, fitting my world inside of Sappho’s brackets, and Sappho’s world inside my own. As I attempt to draw together the disparate pieces of this current moment, I feel a strange kinship with Sappho. I too desire a place in the world woven by the Muses and Graces, in the eyes of those I love.


1. Sappho and Anne Carson. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. 2002. Print.

2. Reynolds, Margaret, and Sappho. The Sappho Companion. New York: Palgrave for St. Martin’s Press, 2001. Print.


Photo by Mika on Unsplash

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