Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press (2011)

I first reviewed Poetry of Sappho from Arion Press soon after it’s release, and proceeded to update the review once or twice thereafter as the book further “sank in” to my consciousness. Now that I have finally spent a full night reading the book cover to cover, while imbibing on a truly excellent American Syrah, (2007 Alban Vineyards Reva, which you must try!), it has become clear to me that the book is well deserving of a second full article. As a result of my night of reading Arion’s Sappho, at 48 years of age, I have re-learned a valuable lesson or two:

1) be open minded, which opens the door to constantly seeking deeper understanding, more enlightenment and an appreciation for things outside of one’s comfort zone 
2) there is a reason why wine is such a glorious drink, and why the symposiums of ancient Greece centered intellectually enlightening talk around the drinking of wine

First, a recap of my initial impressions of the book. As an object, the book always struck me as beautifully done.  The binding, paper, type, etc., are wonderful. The art, by Julie Mehretu, I initially did not understand. In fairness, I am not a fan of abstract art to begin with, and frankly have little appreciation for the style. In addition, my idea of illustrations for a book of ancient Greek poetry is pretty conservative and standard; figurative art, usually as represented on ancient Greek vases. In short, even before getting the book, I had a bias against what I was about to see. I was surprised that I actually liked the illustrations more than I thought I would, though I still did not ‘get it’.

Fast forward a year or two to a wonderful Friday evening, well under way into the aforementioned Alban Reva, when it struck me what a perfect time it would be to deeply read the book. Onto the couch I went, and for the next few hours was entranced by the intersection of the beautiful words and thinking of Sappho with the beauty of the edition I held in my hands. The more the words of Sappho clicked in my consciousness, the more the holistic nature of the edition in my hands made sense. Suddenly, the abstraction of the art transmogrified into a clear emotional picture that perfectly encapsulated the passion of Sappho. Some examples will follow, but my guess is it will not resonate with you, dear reader, until such time as you yourself grab the book, a bottle of vino and spend some serious time getting acquainted!

First, the executive summary. The edition is truly beautiful. As for the binding, 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 binding is not flashy, not ‘wow’, but is simply classically beautiful. The paper, Revere, an Italian mould-made sheet with 250 grams per square meter, is equally nice an an excellent choice for this edition.  It gives the book some heft, while providing a brilliant and strong canvas for the prints from Mehetru, as well as for the letterpressed type; the introduction was set in 12-point Garamont Monotype, the English translations were handset in 18-point Garamont, and the Greek was composed on computer in digital Adobe Garamond Greek type, printed from polymer plates.  It is nicely spaced, pleasant for reading, and with plenty of white space at 14-1/2 x 9-3/4 inches.

The introduction from Page duBois, Distinguished Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, San Diego, should be used as a template for everything an introduction should be. It is thorough, learned, engaging and an absolutely essential part of the book; in fact, I would say that the context it presents is a major reason for the overall success of the book as a holistic entity. By this, I mean one’s mind is appropriately greased for understanding and contemplating the text and prints that are to follow. To give you an idea of the breadth of the introduction, Arion’s discussion of the book states:

The author reexamines the legends attached to Sappho’s life, such as her being a prostitute, a teacher of girls, a political exile, a suicide, a victim of mistaken identity (the “two Sappho” theory), establishing what contemporary historians believe to be the biography. Professor duBois explains the factors that made the unthinkable possible – for a literary legacy revered throughout the Hellenistic and Roman worlds to have almost perished by the end of the Middle Ages. She retells the chapters in the drama of its partial recovery, through translations in the Renaissance, and, in the twentieth century, from a new harvest of fragments on papyri in Egypt, preserved in a drier climate than the author’s native island culture. In taking up the most recent of these, the astonishing 2004 discovery of the “Cologne” papyri, accidentally found while unrolling the wrappings of a mummy in a German archive, duBois considers the changed meanings of the now fuller version of one of Sappho’s most wrenching verses, fragment 58, with its white-haired narrator lamenting the onset of age and the loss of beauty, yet posing, some say, the possibility of consolation.

Besides the prints by Mehretu, which we will look at at length soon, there are 23 wood engravings cut by Anita Cowles Rearden in the 1880s that are strewn throughout the introduction. These are sure to make all classicists smile, as you will see in the pictures I provide below. Lastly, keep in mind that this is a new translation commissioned by Arion Press, done by Page duBois and author/poet John Daley. Unfortunately, I do not have a basis to compare this translation with another, since I have not studied any other. But I will say, on its own, this was a wonderful read, which certainly points to a nicely written translation, though I cannot comment on its literalness.

As for a quick look at the principals of the book, just in case you are not familiar with them:

Sappho was a lyric 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, is an accomplished artist known for her abstract works. 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 pieces held in collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Her work has sold at auction for over a 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.

Let’s finally now take a  look at the Sappho/Mehretu combination, best done by selective quotes from Sappho matched with certain prints from Mehretu. First, a few comments:

1) I have not studied Sappho. There is a universe of scholarly work around her poems. I am not approaching this article as a summation of current Sappho interpretation. For my purposes in this reading, I intentionally did not research what scholars say — it was read purely to elicit associations that flowed from within myself. So, any comments on the fragments below could be completely “off” in terms of what was really meant; but certainly are completely “on” in what thoughts came to my mind when reading them.

2) Your mindset in approaching this edition should be one of art reflecting the essence of the work via emotional representation, not figurative interpretation. That was my approach and my comments on the illustrations  below reflect this.

3) Abstract art inherently is very personal in interpretation, so it would not surprise me if you do not see the associations I mention below. Fine, read the book, and form your own associations with the prints!

4) Once again, allow me to mention wine; the lubricant of the mind. By clearing out clutter, raising artistic sensation, intellectual curiosity and acceptance, wine plays a vital role in our ability to lift the veil of things previously mysterious, not understood, or shut out of the possibility of appreciation.

So, with glass in hand:

Fragment 2 (partially shown here):

And in it, a cold spring sounds through apple boughs,
and the whole place is veiled with roses,
and from their trembling petals
enchanted sleep drops
 
And in it, a horse-grazing meadow blooms
with spring blossoms, and the winds
gently breathe…

Sample Illustration #1 below nicely encapsulates the passion; the hope, fear and joy in this fragment. On the left of Mehretu’s print, I pictured the graceful lines of a beautiful woman, naked, with the surrounding lines of the print representing the tumult of the soul surrounding her.

Fragment 5 (partially shown here):

And maybe then want his sitter to partake in honor,
but sore grief :  :
before in sorrow…

What is Sample Illustration #2 below but a reflection of grief, and perhaps confusion?

Fragment 16 (partially shown here):

Some men say an army of cavalry, others, a mass of foot soldiers,
and still others claim a host of ships to be the most beautiful thing
upon the black earth. But I say that thing is
what ever one loves.
I would rather see her lovely footstep
and the radiant sparkle of her face,
than the chariots of the Lydians and the foot soldiers
in their armor…

Sample Illustration #3 below speaks to me of simpleness, the basics of form. As Sappho implies, we do not need to seek complexity to find beauty; no, beauty is simple, it is right in front of us. When faced with it; when we allow ourselves to recognize it, all around us becomes clear; the meaningfulness of life becomes obvious, it becomes simple.

Fragment 31 (partially shown here):

And your lovely laugh, which indeed flutters
the heart inside my breast,
so when I gaze at you, even for a moment,
to speak then is no longer possible.
 
Though my tongue cracks,
and suddenly delicate fire runs wild under my skin,
I can see nothing with my eyes,
and my ears buzz,
 
as sweat drenches, and trembling seizes all of me,
I am greener than grass!
I am little short of dying —
so I seem to myself.

What an expression of passion by Sappho; passion of such strength it imprisons her. Passion, unable to be fulfilled, with love being lost to another. Mehretu’s interpretation represented in Sample Illustration 4 below reflects this passion, together with signs of torment, perhaps from jealousy of love lost to another.

Fragment 36 and 41:

I yearn for, and I pursue.

and

For you my beauties, my thought
is beyond expression

Now look at Sample Illustration #5 below. The words that come to mind are angst, yearning, frenzy, driven by desire.

Fragment 47 and 48:

Eros has rattled my heart
like a mountain wind rushing down on oaks

and

You arrived, and I was yearning after you,
and you cooled my heart that was burning with desire
 

Sample Illustration #6, as the picture flows from left to right, passion is cooled or perhaps satiated, lines become less chaotic, more clean.

Fragment 55 and 57:

Dead you will lie. And there will never be any memory
nor any to long after you, for you shall have no share of the roses
from Pieria. But unseen in the House of Hades,
flown away, you will wander with obscure corpses

and

What rustic bumpkin girl casts a spell over you mind,
dressed in her rustic clothing,
not even knowing to drape her robes and cover ankles.

These verses seem to reflect anger and jealousy. See Sample Illustration #7 below, the top half reflecting the breath of anger flowing, being shouted from a mouth, the bottom half seeming to imply confusion, the soul racked by the torment of jealousy.

Fragment 58 (partially shown here):

But for me old age has now seized my once delicate skin,
and white has turned my hair once black.
My heart has been made heavy, and my knees won’t support me —
knees, which once were nimble and danced like fawns.
These things I often sigh about, but what can be done?
For a human being, it’s not possible to be ageless.

What a beautiful and wise verse. In Sample Illustration 8, the richness of the lines and near full use of the canvas reflects a life long lived, memories intersecting, the chaos of life and a frustration that spring and summer have past.

Fragment 94 (partially shown here):

I wish I were dead!  Literally. Dead.
She was weeping. She was going away from me.
 
Over and over, she said this to me:
“O how sublime, what we have experienced,
Sappho, and yet I am forced to leave you behind.”
 
And I could only reply by saying these things:
“Farewell. Go now, and remember
me. For you know how we cared for you,
 
and if not, well, that’s why I want
to remind you   :
:   and those beautiful things we felt.
 

The verse goes on, memories painfully recalled, yet balanced by what is seemingly some mature reflection (an early version of Tennyson’s “Tis better to have loved and lost: Than never to have loved at all.”). Sample Illustration 9 seems to show the explosion of what was ecstasy, replaced by pain, yet constrained. There is confusion, sadness and sometimes what seems to be utter despair; yet there is also reflection of happiness once known, and resignation that loss does not eliminate what was.

Fragment 105a:

As the sweet apple blushes red upon the highest branch,
high on the highest branch, where apple harvesters left it hanging,
but no, they haven’t forgotten it, they just couldn’t reach there.

The comparison is of a bride to an apple, ready for “plucking”, i.e., for marriage. Perhaps the bride was not attainable, or had previously had charms that had not rally been noticed. Sample Illustration 10 is dominated by large, beautiful curved lines, seemingly striving for beauty amidst the enemy of confusion, driven by the fog of love, trying to break in. Seeing through the  fog, beauty is discovered.

Fragment 123, 126 and 130:

Suddenly, Eos in golden sandals!

and

May you sleep on the breast of your tender companion.

and

Eros, the limb loosener, again stirs me
like a sweet bitter irresistible creeping beast

These words reflect a renewed optimism of love coming, though in a more controlled fashion that the unbridled passion seen earlier (or, perhaps pre-passion?). Sample Illustration 11 reflects this by its ordered, beautiful lines; formed, almost molded, into a feeling of youth, strength and control.

Fragment 146:

Neither for me the honey nor the bee.

Thinking of this, and looking at Sample Illustration 12, I am not quite sure what I see, but perhaps that is the point. There is both order and disorder. There is confusion, yet surety. There is freedom, yet constraint. The statement, a beautiful alliteration apparently referring to people who wish for good unmixed with evil. The print is complex, and I cannot quite get my mind around it in relation to this fragment.

Fragment 168b:

The moon has gone down
and the Pleiades. It is the middle
of night, time passes.
I lie alone to sleep.

This passage, like Sample Illustration 13, reflects the enormity of the universe and the scale of time; within the realization of which is a feeling of loneliness, of a search for meaning. There is order reflected here, yet also an understanding of how little knowledge we have, and awe of what is around us, and the puniness of us in the scheme of things.

I have nearly 50 Arion Press works, and can say without hesitation that this is one of the best. It belongs on the shelf of any fine press lover looking for works at the pinnacle of the craft. Classicists, modernists, it has something for all…and importantly provides impetus for appreciation of styles perhaps not appreciated before. Bravo to Andrew Hoyem and team for a wonderful example of fine book craftsmanship that also shows perfectly well how modern abstract art can complement and enhance works of classical antiquity. Am I now a huge fan of Abstractionism?  Nope. I will still take more classically based art any day of the week. But, at least in this instance, I now have an appreciation that I did not previously have. And, Ms. Mehretu has a new fan thanks to her opening my eyes to what I was blind to previously!

{Ed. Note: It appears a couple new fragments of Sappho have recently come to light, see here.}

About the Edition

  • 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

Pictures of the Edition

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Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Slipcase
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Slipcase
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Spine and Covers
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Spine and Covers
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro of Spine
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro of Spine
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Cover
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Cover
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro of Cover
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro of Cover
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro of Side View
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro of Side View
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Title Page
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Title Page
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro of Title Page
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro of Title Page
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #1
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #1
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Text #2 (Introduction)
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Text #2 (Introduction)
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro #1 of Woodcuts from Introduction
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro #1 of Woodcuts from Introduction
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro #2 of Woodcuts from Introduction
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro #2 of Woodcuts from Introduction
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro #3 of Woodcuts from Introduction
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro #3 of Woodcuts from Introduction
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Text #3 (opening lines)
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Text #3 (opening lines)
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #3 (Greek)
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #3 (Greek)
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #3 (English)
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #3 (English)
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #2
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #1 (Fragment 5 association)
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #4
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #2 (Fragment 31 association)
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #8
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #3 (Fragment 58 association)
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #13
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #4 (Fragment 168b association)
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Colophon
Poetry of Sappho, Arion Press, Colophon

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