Sappho and Society
In my freshman year of college I remembered I liked to read. Where had the time gone when I went with my mother to the library and I would check out a stack this high and actually read? It was in high school that I became a fake, someone who wanted to collect but never to consume. We’d go to Goodwill, my mother and I, and I would pick so and so from the shelf and I’m sure she’d look on with proud eyes at the tomes I picked. “That’s my son, what a reader,” she’d think. But it was a lie. Once home the books would sit and collect dust. Was I scared of something? Perhaps a laziness had set into my bones and settled like all the calcium from the milk I drank. I also found out in freshman year I was lactose intolerant, but that’s beside my point: something had happened.
I won’t claim that Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter changed me, or that it awoke in me my love for books. It did nothing of the sort, in fact it did something quite the opposite; I could suddenly argue with literature. Before If Not, Winter, books to me were these static things; they had words and meaning and images, but they were nothing special. When I read all those books from the library, they impacted me in the way a cult impacts an impressionable youth. I became obsessed with copying their form and style and tone without regard for my own deeper thought processes. It had never occured to me that literature you write can be in response to what you read.
That’s exactly what this book is. It is the response to a societal mood: let’s use and abuse Sappho (after all, who cares?). Carson wants an end to what she describes aptly as “a duller load of silence surround[ing] the bits of Sappho cited by ancient scholars, grammarians, metricians, etc., who want a dab of poetry to decorate some proposition of their own.” These people have become targets, and every bracket seems to further nail the coffin in their graves.
Brackets, yes, I seem to have gotten ahead of myself. I’ve yet to describe the illustrious If Not, Winter. Under the guise of a 400 page tome, these Sapphic translations are true to the original (perhaps too much so). The book opens with Carson’s brief introduction and begins with the only Sappho poem to survive in its entirety. The Greek on the left page faces the English on the right, all organized into clean stanzas. Now that I’ve seen frats and sororities I know some of these Greek letters: there’s a phi, and an omega, and a chi… If only I spoke ancient Greek. We have to trust that Carson’s words have remained as true to the original as the book’s design layout implies, as most people uneducated in Sappho are ushered by this design into the belief that her words unequivocally equal Sappho’s.
The question of translational quality goes out the window as we are led down the book’s meandering path of brackets and open space. Blank pages with sparse fragmentary words enclosed by brackets litter the book. These brackets “indicate destroyed papyrus or the presence of letters not quite legible somewhere in the line.” More importantly, though, “brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it.” As the book winds to a close, Carson stuffs in as many of the one-word fragments as possible. We find such favorites as “soda,” “makeup bag,” and “mythweaver.”
Is this all a joke? It would seem almost that Carson is doing Sappho a disservice in translating her so, left her open to insults by freshmen in college like me. Oh, if Carson were to see how my pencil stabbed at the pages and attacked any vulnerable word that was left with only the protection of those brackets, she would cry. I’m sure I could have finished the book in 5 minutes if I hadn’t put it down in bored disgust first. “Who does Anne Carson think she is?” I thought. I paid money for this joke of a book, for these fragments of Sappho, and all I got was “soda” and “makeup bag.” Claiming this conclusive edition of Sapphic translations was the be-all end-all, Carson thought she could single-handedly shut down those “ancient scholars, grammarians, metricians, etc.,” but she became one of them, seemingly taking advantage of the abused and discarded Sappho. I picked the book back up. Carson, what’s your game? At that point in my freshman year of college I remembered I liked to read.
I’ve come to realize that this isn’t really a book book. It’s a guidebook, a dictionary, a How to Sappho for Dummies. It was Carson putting her foot down because Sappho had been changed. Rather than take from her, poets and authors had instead begun to add to her their own styles and words and emotions. This book truly is the definitive Sappho. It’s not meant to be read, but rather referred to. These brackets lend a scientific cleanliness, organizing freeform words and stanzas into immoveable squares held far away from the vastness of the blank page. Keep this book on your shelf, Carson begs, and use it when some “ancient scholars, grammarians, metricians, etc.” attempt to quote Sappho. You can see “soda,” and know exactly where to draw the line between them and Sappho.
If Not, Winter is Sappho unadulterated. It seems that I’ve lied to myself, thinking that it hasn’t changed me. I’m somehow imprinted in these pages, as brackets and one word translations lend themselves to a certain universality: It’s true, occasionally I do sit on the sofa, sipping soda, while my mother digs into her makeup bag and wonders what happened to the days where I read and never argued.