If Not, Winter: Fragments Of Sappho, Translated by Anne Carson
by Charles Bane, Jr.
Before the advent of modern feminism, a woman's inner life was often spent in sharp, glass-like splinters: there were, for many, only glimpses of what their lives might have been if they had been able to access the opportunity to live independently, attend a university, or pursue a forbidden profession. Canadian poet Anne Carson translates the now-fragmented works of Greek lyric poet Sappho, whose bursts of poetry are gifted, so that today we can recognize Sappho nonetheless as the finest Western poet of antiquity.
Carson's translation, If Not, Winter: Fragments Of Sappho, published in 2003, has been reissued in paperback by Penguin Random House. As Library Journal noted in its original review, "The lyric poetry of antiquity is often as important to modern poets as it is to translators."
We know virtually nothing of Sappho; her body of work did not survive the transition from the archaic Greek in which she wrote to a more popular idiom. To make her seem conventional, rumors were spread about that she was likely married with children, which does not seem true. What is true is that, as Carson reveals in a sensitive translation, Sappho had an almost unnerving directness of poetic expression that she reserved for the women who were the objects of both her love and her lust. "You burn me," Sappho set down, urgently, as if mirroring the open talk between modern-day lesbians sitting together for a hurried coffee at Starbucks, and counting down the work hours until they can be alone.
All Sappho could hope was that "someone will remember us," and Carson's brilliant work—including the original Greek on the opposite page of each English translation—assures that we will.
Charles Bane, Jr. is the Nonfiction Editor of Boston Accent Lit. View his website and additional writings here.