Everyone loves a good love story, and given the immense amount of lesbian romance fiction sold every year, lesbians are no exception. This month we bring you three books that go beyond the hearts-and-flowers approach to romance: one speaks to us across the centuries; one speaks to us in mysteries; and one, well, is perfect for anyone who wants an escape from all the red hearts and candy that mark this Hallmark holiday. So curl up with your sweetheart (or not) and dive in: Sappho would.
Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho, translated by Willis Barnstone (Shambhala, 2006)
After centuries of praise, censorship and shifting trends, only fragments of Sappho's verses remain. What has endured, however, shows why this Greek lyricist is still considered a poet of the heart and why Plato once called her the "tenth muse."
Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho, the beautiful new translation by Willis Barnstone, includes biographical and contextual details, nearly 200 pages of poetry and a "testimonia," which features critical and literary references to Sappho through the ages, from her contemporaries all the way to Rainer Maria Rilke.
In Sappho, Barnstone explains, "we hear for the first time in the Western world the direct words of an individual woman." These direct and "time-scissored" words were found in a variety of places — "from the scholia of ancient grammarians to the mummy wrappings in Egyptian tombs" — and in the introduction, Barnstone describes how Sappho's work managed to survive.
But while Barnstone explains how Sappho's words survived, the verses show why. The poetry in this collection captures and illustrates the many sides of love — often in the span of one or two lines: "Love shook my heart like wind/on a mountain punishing oak trees"; "Away/from her/yet she became/like gods"; "Delicate girl/once again/I leaped/and wandered."
Historians, critics and readers have long debated Sappho's place at the table and, not surprisingly, the conversation rarely focuses on her work. She has gone from a celebrated poet to a "whorish woman, love-crazy" (according to second-century Assyrian writer Tatian) to the quarry of book burnings. Her sexuality, too, has served as a source of controversy, states Barnstone, though the arguments that explain away her lesbian poems stem by and large from bigotry and read like briefs "in an unnecessary trail."
It's worth considering why we continue to read some of the same writers centuries after they've lived. In the case of Sappho, it is clearly because her poetry still speaks to us, to the human condition. Sappho's observations and insights are startlingly contemporary and relevant. When it comes to love, they seem to say, little has changed since antiquity.