Wednesday, June 29, 2005

This will I now sing deftly to please my girlfriends.

--Fragment 11. Sappho

I had a World Lit class when I was in 10th grade. Mr. M was one of my favorite teachers; a terribly nice, lisping man who always refered to us as Miss Last Name. I remember reading Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood that year, which is an awfully harrowing novel, and probably the first time I had seen a depiction of motherhood that wasn't all warm fuzzies and Victorian greeting cards. We also had a big anthology of world lit. I remember clear as day when we were assigned to read Sappho to ourselves while he graded papers:

He is more than a hero
he is a god in my eyes--
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you

who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing

laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast. If I meet
you suddenly, I can't

speak -- my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,

hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body

and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn't far from me.


Poetry geek that I am, I loved this poem. I read it several times, just savoring it. And then I had this lightning bolt moment, when I realized that she's addressing a woman. I was completely and utterly astounded. A woman poet writing a love poem to another woman. I didn't know you could do that. I'd never heard of it. I looked up at my teacher, grading away. He hadn't said anything about Sappho. The textbook didn't mention anything unusual about the poem. I re-read it again. You would think someone would have mentioned something about it. It was a baby dyke moment, to see feelings and emotions I spent most of my time trying to bury and ignore, condensed into poetry that everyone in the class was reading. I felt terribly exposed and confused. I decided that it must be some sort of literary device. She couldn't possibly be saying what I thought she was describing. I really, really should have been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead of The X-Files.
Needless to say, this news made my day: Lost Sappho love poem published after 2,600 years

5 Comments:

At 10:39 PM, Anonymous Charlotte said...

I suppose so many people have felt the same thing with that poem. I know I did. A classmate presented a project on Greek poetry a few months ago and he kept going on about how Sappho has been depicted as a prostitute and queer. I was hardly listening, I'd been studying that poem to establish resemblance between it and a popular classical Chinese work, and all I could think of was "I can't believe this is about another woman".

(Please excuse any mistakes, English is my second language).

 
At 7:54 AM, Blogger Andygrrl said...

No mistakes that I can see! Your English is much better than my French :-)

I always use this story as an example of how important it is for people to be open about the sexuality of authors and artists. I have an anthology of women's poetry from the 70s--it's quite clearly a feminist publication, and even *they* don't acknowledge Sappho's queerness! They even include that poem! I can only assume they were still afraid of the "Lavender Menance", as Betty Friedan called us; the mainstream tried to discredit the second-wavers as dykes and they didn't want to prove them right.
What's sad is now there are states, like Florida and Alabama, that are passing laws forbidding libraries and schools from providing or acknowledging works by queer writers. Don't want to "expose" the children. There goes Shakespeare and countless others.
You know, maybe I'll post about that.

 
At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Charlotte said...

Yes, I read about that and I found it completely disturbing. I suppose everything's in uproar at the moment, over here in Spain controversy is on the street as to whether homosexual marriage should be legal (and finally, it is!). I thought I'd never have to hear crap such as "homosexuality is a pathological disease" in the 21st century, but there you go, right out of the mouth of a psychologist representing the second most powerful political party in a country. I thought things had progressed since Franco, but I could be wrong. (Apparently, it seems that it's much worse in the States, though. The whole library affair really freaked me out. I can just imagine the next generation of literature students learning about Sappho's "platonic love" for her pupils and friends. If they ever learn about Sappho, of course, right next on the shelf to Mr. Charles Darwin).

 
At 1:42 PM, Blogger Andygrrl said...

That's so awesome that Spain finally legalized it. Keeps me from getting too depressed. In the states it really depends on what state you live in and what county, for better or for worse. So if you live in a coastal city, like New York or San Francisco, it's not really a problem. But most of us don't live there; that's what nobody, gay or straight, seems to realized. There are plenty of us in the rural and midwest areas.

 
At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Charlotte said...

Yes, we've been the forth European country to legalise it, but we are under socialist government at the moment (let's see how long that lasts!). I read you'll be moving to France as assistant professor (or whatever it's called), you'll probably notice a difference!

 

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