Poetry of Sappho, Illustrated by Julie Mehretu, Arion Press

{Ed. Note:  1/25/2012.  I have now had months with the book. As you know if you read the original review, I have always liked Arion’s Sappho, always have been been thrilled with the quality. That having been said, after reading the book my appreciation and love of the production has grown immeasurably. Readers who have struggled with their initial interpretation of Ms. Mehretu’s work, should re-assess.  They should read the book, and contemplate deeply Ms. Mehretu’s take on Sappho. It has the ability to astound the senses, and provide greater meaning and depth to the text.}

I have been eagerly looking forward to the release of Poetry of Sappho, from Arion Press, for many months.  In fact, knowing this edition was in the works was one reason why I finally subscribed after years of dreaming of doing so. I just love literature from ancient Greece and HAD to have this! I was elated when I saw a package from UPS yesterday with ‘Arion Press’ stamped on it. Once opened, my expectations were met; the book is beautifully designed and executed.  The illustrations, though not my preferred style, are intellectually interesting.  I will reserve final opinion on them until I have read the book so I can have a more informed opinion.

Sappho was a poet from ancient Greece, born somewhere around the early 600’s BC, dying around 570 BC. Born and raised in Lesbos, she was exiled to Sicily sometime between 600 BC and 594 BC. Though not known for certain, it is assumed that after some years she returned from exile and lived the rest of her life in Lesbos. Her reputation in antiquity was immense, being considered one of the greatest lyric poets. Much of what we know of Sappho comes through mentions by other ancient writers.  Unfortunately, though her work was originally sung, performed and recorded in nine volumes, only fragments of her work survives.  Her poetry centers on passion, love, emotion and beauty.

Julie Mehretu, an accomplished artist known for her abstract works, drew the illustrations for this edition from Arion Press. She was born in 1970 in Ethiopia, educated in the United States and now lives in New York. Her work has been shown in major art museums around the world, including some held in collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. A painting of her’s sold at Sotheby’s last year for over one million dollars. As described in the prospectus from Arion Press:

Mehretu is interested in lost cultures, in the remains if artifacts of earlier civilizations. Plans of settlements and architecture underlie the surface of her works. Here she seems to unearth fragmentary manuscripts, and the marks are often quite calligraphic. They are poetic statements, graphic expressions of an ancient undecipherable literature that expresses human concerns as relevant today as they were in Greece over two thousand years ago. Mehretu’s art reminds one of Kandinsky’s abstractions and their enduring appeal over a century.

Frankly, I have never been a huge fan of Kandinsky, nor of the abstract movement as a whole.  I was a bit skeptical about the illustrations planned for this volume, because of my bias against abstractionist art.  After a day of looking at these, I cannot say I am a convert, that suddenly I ‘get it’; however, they do seem strangely apropos to me in their fragmentary nature; their attempt to speak to me in a language and time far separated from my own.  I will hand it to Arion Press. Usually the art they select for their works is outside my realm of familiarity and comfort zone; despite this, I must say that through Arion Press I have expanded my range of appreciation to many styles I was previously closed to; also, I can always intellectually understand their artistic choices and how such choices fit with both the work matched with it and their objectives as a Press. While someday I hope to see an Arion Press Jane Eyre edition with classic, beautiful, haunting illustrations more matched to my biased artistic choices, I recognize and appreciate that such is not likely to happen!  Instead, I will get Arion’s choice, which inevitably will challenge me, make me think outside the box, force me to expand my horizons. To a certain degree, isn’t that the point or art? Of striving for intellect?

I am excited and thrilled that Arion Press commissioned new English translations of Sappho’s work, including that contained in the most recent discovery in 2004 of new fragments in the “Cologne” papyri, accidentally found while unrolling the wrappings of a mummy in a German archive!  Poet John Daley and classicist Page duBois did the translation.  Page duBois also provides an extensive introduction, including legends, what we know about Sappho, how her work nearly perished, and how recovery of lost works has taken place, bringing Sappho again to the forefront as the supreme lyric poet of antiquity.

About the Edition

The book, as with most (all) Arion Press books is extremely well put together, and well thought out.  The spacing is very nice, just about perfect in fact. The book feels great in your hands; the paper is fantastic (I love uncut!), and the type is a good match and is nicely readable. In design, outside of Mehretu’s illustrations, the book is conservative and what I would call classic. Mehretu’s illustrations add modernity and something to visually contemplate.

  • Designed by Andrew Hoyem
  • Introduction by Page duBois
  • Introduction contains wood engravings by Anita Cowles Rearden
  • In Greek, with English Translation by John Daley with Page duBois
  • 20 black and white prints by Julie Mehretu, printed from polymer plates made from negatives with the emulsion scratched by Mehretu with an etching needle for the linear art and from scans of overlay images drawn by her
  • The format is 14-1/2 x 9-3/4 inches, 112 pages
  • The introduction was set in 12-point Garamont Monotype. The English translations were handset in 18-point Garamont. The Greek was composed on computer in digital Adobe Garamond Greek type, printed from polymer plates
  • On the title page, introduction, and colophon are 23 wood engravings cut by Anita Cowles Rearden in the 1880s, intended as illustrations for a book on Sappho and Alcaeus by her husband Judge Timothy Rearden, now printed for the first time (at the time the book went unpublished due to the author’s unexpected death)
  • All printing is by letterpress.
  • The paper is Revere, an Italian mould-made sheet, 250 grams per square meter
  • The sections are handsewn with linen thread over vellum tapes, that are laced through the joints of the spine, which is also of vellum, stamped in gold with the poet’s name
  • The boards are covered with a fine binding cloth manufactured in Germany, of a light green color, imprinted with a portion of an image from the extra suite of prints in darker green
  • The book is presented in a cloth and paper covered slipcase with spine stamping similar to the book’s
  • Limited to 400 numbered copies for sale, mine is #46


(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided to highlight and visualize the work being reviewed.  A side benefit, hopefully, is encouraging healthy sales of fine press books for the publishers and fine retailers that specialize in these types of books (of which Books and Vines has no stake or financial interest). Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Slipcase Spine
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Book Spine and Cover
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Front Cover
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Side View
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Prospectus
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Title Page
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Page from Introduction with Woodcut Image
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Second Sample Pages from Introduction with Woodcut Images
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Third Sample Pages from Introduction with Woodcut Images
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Close-up of Woodcut Images
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Fourth Sample Introduction Page with Woodcut Image
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Pages with Text
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Second Sample Pages with Text
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, First Sample Pages with Illustrations
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Second Sample Pages with Illustrations
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Third Sample Pages with Text
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Third Sample Pages with Illustrations
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Fourth Sample Pages with Text
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Fourth Sample Pages with Illustrations
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Fifth Sample Pages with Illustrations
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Fifth Sample Pages with Text
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Colophon

7 thoughts on “Poetry of Sappho, Illustrated by Julie Mehretu, Arion Press

  1. I’ve looked at this edition several times and find myself–to my own surprise–really wanting it. There are apparently 20 prints–does this mean 10 double-page spreads or 20? You’ve either photographed all or half of Mehretu’s artwork. If only half, then I am even more tempted to own this and peruse the others.


    1. Hi Matt, the post only includes a bit more than half (I believe, I am out of town and cannot look at the book). I really enjoy the book, and her work has opened my eyes some towards how this style can wonderfully match such a classic work.

  2. Beautiful book!

    The format is imposing and the balance of the Greek/Latin fonts looks perfect. The paper sounds ‘delicious’ and I will assume the printing is of the highest standard.

    It is good to see vellum being used for the binding and I can’t say that I have ever seen a book produced in ‘modern’ times where the sewn sections are sewn through (and attached to) the spine (the way books were bound during the earliest days of printing) – this is a lovely ‘nod of the head’ to a time when a text like Sappho would have been more common to publish than today, apart from making the book structurally superior than any other method.

    I like the small ‘Burne Jones’ style engravings on the title-page, in the intro. and on the colophon.

    The double page spreads by Julie Mehretu stopped me dead in my tracks. Are they just scribbles? What do they mean? How do they fit with the text? Would the book have been better had they just been left out?

    I am fairly traditional when it comes to book illustration and I favour wood-engraving as a medium for texts, so my first impressions of these ‘illustrations’ were confusing. I have looked through your (expertly reproduced) images again and again to the extent of enlarging them and studying them closely for minutes at a time. I found nothing that made any sense to me. Then I placed the images next to a double page spread of text and to my surprise, although I ‘didn’t get’ the images on there own, I found that they ‘balanced’ beautifully with the text. I don’t know if the Artist set out to mirror the Greek/Latin spreads in an abstact way, but that is what worked for me.

    Many great Artists have ‘had a go’ at book illustration over the years and many have been derided by their contemporaries. It will be interesting to see how Julie Mehretu fares as time passes.

    A masterly presentation of a stunning book – Thank you!

  3. Looks like Arion may be taking up where the LEC left off. I also like the wrtings, musings etc. of the ancient world, although the illustrations are a bir avante garde for me. If I were younger, I would probably join Arion. Is Arion strictly subscription for all their books? I just wonder, when they produce something as expensive as their Don Quixote, is it required that you subscribe to it?

Leave a Reply