Friday, June 19, 2009
Will Durant in his "Life of Greece" is quoted as saying that Sappho "called herself Psappha, in her soft Aeolian accent" and Psappha is the name by which she is known through this wondrous novel. Because the title uses the more familiar name, that is the name I shall use.
Many people have heard the name of Sappho but not many know who she was, what she did, or what she was famous for. There is, however, a sadly amusing idea in certain quarters that Sappho was "the founder of Lesbians," to quote someone of my acquaintance. (I didn't know Lesbians were "founded" but I guess that's a different issue.) At any rate, she is associated in modern thought with Lesbians (in the sexual sense, that is, not as in "citizens of Lesbos") and nothing else. Many people don't even know that the Island of Lesbos, in the Aegean Sea, actually exists and is not some mythic legend like Atlantis. I did actually know it existed, but that's the extent of what I knew until I read Sappho Sings.
Though Sappho was a prolific writer of poetry only a few original fragments of her work remain in existence, and it is with these fragments that Bell weaves the mesmerizing tale of an accomplished, passionate woman as real and flawed as any woman alive today.
Bell's vision of Sappho begins with her as a fatherless, feisty teenage girl, small in stature but a lion in spirit, who defies a tyrant and pays for it by being banished from her beloved island home and the adored little brother whose birth took her mother's life. On the miserable journey from Lesbos to Syracuse, Sappho loses her lifelong friend and betrothed, Alkaios, in a storm. She is rescued and "captured"--at least that's her view of it--by Kerkolos, a sea-going, wealthy merchant, who takes her to his home in Syracuse.
He treats her with utmost respect that eventually calms her fears of becoming a slave or concubine, and his gentle ways, so at odds with his appearance, win her over to friendship. They wed, and Sappho gives birth to his daughter. She feels great fondness for him, if not passion, and is grief-stricken and frightened when she finds herself suddenly widowed and at the mercy of her truly horrible mother-in-law.
Eventually Sappho initiated in the rites of the Sisterhood of Iphis and discovers that, though she is capable of physical passion with men, her heart is taken by women. The cast is large; some of the names are vaguely familiar from Ancient History in High School many years ago. I didn't find them very interesting back then. Now they certainly are!
The characters are unforgettable, especially Praxinoa, the nurse and lifelong friend; Lycos, the elegant and somewhat effeminate man whose loving friendship also lasts throughout the book, and the tall, Nubian queen, Gongyla, the love of Sappho's life, a woman who sold herself into slavery to save her people from a similar fate. I will never forget these people who have been my companions for many days.
Bell's knowledge of society and of place seems encyclopedic and yet not overwhelming. The language is just archaic enough in structure that it keeps you grounded in the ancient world but not enough so that it seems overdone. Names are pronounced in footnotes, which is very helpful. Sappho Sings is also the most sensuous book I have ever read: the lush descriptions of place, the elegantly expressed passion of depicted intimacy are poetic without crossing the line into the ludicrous, as sometimes happens when less gifted authors attempt it.
It is simply a wonderful book. It is not a quick and easy read, and it's certainly not a genre romance although love of many kinds permeates the pages. Part of that is the author's love of her subject.
This book should be winning awards. I can't recommend it highly enough.
--Ruth Sims, author of The Phoenix
Monday, June 15, 2009
Meticulously researched, expertly conceived, and beautifully written, Sappho Sings is a rich, poetic feast of a novel. Following the famous, and famously passionate, lady of Lesbos through her riches-to-rags-to-riches story, the novel chronicles Sappho's bitter disappointments, artistic and personal triumphs and, above all, her burning desire to be loved. more
Friday, June 12, 2009
My name is Psappha. [suh-fah] Men of Athens dubbed me “Sappho Masculo”. Perhaps they thought that saying I wrote like a man would flatter me. It didn’t. I am proud of who I am. I am Psappha; The Poetess; The Lesbian and I intend to be remembered.
I am not Lesbian, you say. Is it because I lived so long in Syracuse? Or, is it because in modern usage you think my Lesbian citizenship does not qualify me for the term? Is it because I had a husband? How does that matter? I am who I was born. A Lesbian; a poet.
Have you not heard of my Kerkolos? Dare you think I did not come to love him well? I may have married him because I had no choice but I learned to love him for himself. Had I not done so, I would be less than I am and my name would have died before me.
I am Psappha. I was born at Eresus on the isle of Lesbos. My husband came from Andros. A beautiful man he was. As lovely in his way as any of the delicate girls who flocked to me for lessons in music, dance and words; all that my humble gift could teach them. His was a different beauty than that of tender Gyrinna. Different but no less wonderful, no less pure. I was devastated when I lost him while our daughter was so young.
No true Lesbian can love a man, you insist. What can you know of another woman’s heart? Will you stand before me and my life’s blood, Gongyla when we meet on Olympus and say to me, “You are no true Lesbian”? Will you dare?
Love and a kind heart toward my spouse lessened not the ardor aroused in me when my glance fell upon electrum-haired Atthis; nor the sadness of our parting. Nor did it tarnish the glory that was my soul-shattering union with my perfect Amazon.
Often in my life Love, the limb-loosener enflamed my heart toward a velvet-curved woman. But, my love for them took nothing from my daughter’s father. He understood that I needed something more than ‘broidery to fill the months while he sailed the seas.
The gods are generous with their gift of love. They give us all we need and more. The love of a mother for her child. The love of a child for its mother. The love of a man or the love of a woman for a kindred soul. None are the same yet none is diminished by the existence of the others. Rather, each is magnified. Love transcends all earthly values. Its magic is that the more you give away, the more there is to give.
Remember when you decide what a person is or is not that spirit has no gender and love is a thing of sacred spirit. The married homophile you reject today will be some woman’s lover on the morrow. Why should she not be yours?
Thursday, June 04, 2009
Here in south-west Florida, there’s a small man-made lake right behind our apartment. I love to sit on the balcony and watch the goings on.
At night there are lights in other apartments that make one wonder what’s going on inside. But at 5AM there’s only me, my coffee, my cats and golden spots reflected on the water from the street lights by the gate half an acre away.
This morning, there was rain so fine it barely made dents on the surface of the water. Here and there large circles shimmered as fish rose to capture skimmers. In the distance, soft lightning flashed across the horizon too distant to hear the rumble. An odd, thin necked, long bodied critter swam across the pond in the pre-dawn stillness; seen only in silhouette. I presumed it was a turtle out to rid the world of a few surplus bugs.
The sky brightened and a couple of dozen birds awoke to sing welcome to the sun. Pink clouds floated across the eastern sky. The odd critter turned out to be a pale gray duck trailed by seven ducklings. I had to smile as she herded them into the reeds below our balcony. The morning felt all warm and fuzzy as they played their duckling version of hide-and-seek. Then, with what seemed to be no signal they crowded around their mother and the little family swam away on a single long tight line. Moments later, I saw her lead them from the pond into the hedges at the end of another building.
At 6:55 sharp, the fountain in the pond came on to shoot water 40 feet straight up. A car horn honked elsewhere in the complex and I came inside to make my bed and wash last night’s supper dishes. My day had officially begun.
Monday, June 01, 2009
Excerpt from Sappho Sings:
“Oh,sweet Melpomymnia gentle-hearted muse of sorrow, why can't I cry? Where are your tears now, dear muse, tears that flowed so freely for a fool? I loved her more than gods allow and now I've driven her away. What bitter gall remains of the horror I bestowed upon her leaving. Such bitter webs deception weaves. My eyes are dry and barren. Grief and guilt have imprisoned my tears. My soul retches, but my eyes cannot spew it forth. Life still flowed warmly in her veins. She was loath to waste a moment of it.”
Beautifully written, the text of this book could be put to music. Fall back into ancient times and walk with Psappha through the marketplace. You will smell the aroma of the spices, the rotting fish, and sense everything around her.
Psappha's story starts out as one of a life of many losses and circumstances over which she has no control. Losing her father, mother, home, freedom, forced to leave her homeland, and travel beneath her status, Psapha maintains a strong fortitude. As she grows older and wiser she gains fame and power, but also suffers betrayals. She drifts through her life of friends and lovers and at the end I could only be reminded of the words of Solomon, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!"
Sit outside on a beautiful day with a gentle breeze and read Sappho Sings.