Pure Poetry #33: Sappho Was a Right-On Woman by Marisa Meltzer

Pure Poetry Week(s):

#1 – 2/23/2011 – Intro & Def Poetry Jam, by Riese
#2 – 2/23/2011 – Eileen Myles, by Carmen
#3 – 2/23/2011 – Anis Mojgani, by Crystal
#4 – 2/24/2011 – Andrea Gibson, by Carmen & Katrina/KC Danger
#5 – 2/25/2011 – Leonard Cohen, by Crystal
#6 – 2/25/2011 – Staceyann Chin, by Carmen
#7 – 2/25/2011 – e.e. cummings, by Intern Emily
#8 – 2/27/2011 – Louise Glück, by Lindsay
#9 – 2/28/2011 – Shel Silverstein, by Intern Lily & Guest
#10 – 2/28/2011 – Michelle Tea, by Laneia
#11 – 2/28/2011 – Saul Williams, by Katrina Chicklett Danger
#12 – 3/2/2011 – Maya Angelou, by Laneia
#13 – 3/4/2011 – Jack Spicer, by Riese
#14 – 3/5/2011 – Diane DiPrima, by Sady Doyle
#15 – 3/6/2011 – Pablo Neruda, by Intern Laura
#16 – 3/7/2011 – Vanessa Hidary, by Lindsay
#17 – 3/7/2011 – Adrienne Rich, by Taylor
#18 – 3/8/2011 – Raymond Carver, by Riese
#19 – 3/9/2011 – Rock WILK, by Gabrielle
#20 – 3/9/2011 – Veronica Franco, by Queerie Bradshaw
#22 – 3/12/2011 – William Carlos Williams & Robert Creeley, by Becky
#23 – 3/13/2011 – NSFW Sunday is Pure Poetry Edition, by Riese
#24 – 3/14/2011 – Charles Bukowski, by Intern Emily
#25 – 3/16/2011 – Rainer Maria Rilke, by Riese
#26 – 3/17/2011 – Lee Harwood by Mari
#27 – 3/18/2011 – Jeffrey McDaniel by Julieanne
#28 – 3/20/2011 – Dorothy Porter by Julia
#29 – 3/21/2011 – Sylvia Plath, by Riese
#30 – 3/24/2011 – Poems About Being a Homogay, by Riese
#31 – 3/28/2011 – Mary Oliver by Morgan
#32 – 3/29/2011 – Gertrude Stein + Mina Loy by Intern Emily
#33 – 3/29/2011 – Sappho by Marisa Meltzer


After I told Laneia I wanted to write about Sappho, she made sure to point out that I didn’t have to write about a lesbian. Which is really cute; I love how she was trying to let me fully showcase my heterosexuality or something.

Except I kinda only care about lesbian poets — Sappho, Eileen Myles, Adrienne Rich — I mean, what was I supposed to write about, “To His Coy Mistress,” or something?

Anyway, my high school had this thing in the yearbook where seniors got a half-page for photos, quotes, whatever. So if you look at the Stevenson School’s 1995 senior pages, you’ll find a photo of me wearing a Heavens to Betsy shirt on the first day of senior year, a fragment from a Sonic Youth song (“angels are dreaming of you”–so Britney of me), and the lyrics to Beat Happening‘s “Indian Summer.” I was the kind of teenager who was really into the ephemerality of being a teenager. It’s not like I wasn’t miserable and bored, I was just a little in love with the idea of teenagehood being this short, idealized moment. Obviously I topped it all off with a poem by Sappho.

I had read The Secret History during a particularly impressionable time and had this general obsession with The Classic World. I also spent a lot of time hanging out at a local women’s bookstore called Herland (I know: AMAZING, I’m so sad I don’t have the purple Herland tee with their kind of tree of life/Gaia logo on it anymore) and might have gotten into Sappho that way. Regardless, it remains the only poem I know by heart:

You will not remember it but
Let me tell you this
Someone in some
Future time
Will think of us

I’m probably getting the line breaks wrong and maybe even misquoting it. I would google it but I like the version in my head, so just go with it. It’s perfect, you know? Nostalgic and a little romantic. It spoke both to my desire to leave a mark but also to be cool and self-conscious enough to be a little removed from showing that I cared. I also like that it doesn’t rhyme. It’s easy to memorize and it has a certain topical flexibility, so you can recite it to someone in bed but also during a crucial pep talk.
Marisa Meltzer is the author of How Sassy Changed my Life and Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music. This is her tumblr.

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  1. I have a Sappho poem tattooed in the original Archaic Greek on my upper back (I took a whole lotta classics in college, OKAY) and when I got it, I identified as straight. I remember thinking as I drove down Sunset to get inked, “That part of myself…the part that wanted to kiss Amanda while we watched that movie two months ago and who’s jealous of what Kate gets to have with her girlfriend…that part’s going to be just mine, my secret, always, in this tattoo.”

    And it was, for the next 6 years. Now, when my girlfriend’s nose sometimes traces it in the morning, I’m so glad I finally got its message. You’re all right with me, Sappho.

    “Some say the finest thing on this coal-black earth
    Is a fleet of ships or an infantry of men
    I say it is that which you love
    above all else.”

  2. One of my favorite this-is-your-life-and-you-only-kinda-get-it moments is from sappho too. I was a college freshman and we were talking about when she says “trembling, green as grass,” in that poem where she is watching her lover flirt with a man. And it was maybe the first time envy had been green. That firstness blew me away, and there was this weird moment of knowing that I felt that way about my best friend…yeah. Poetry.

    <3Autostraddle. Thanks for the feelings.

    • “and it was maybe the first time envy had been green”

      wow, this comment took my breath away. it’s so easy to get sucked into the mundane use of language, to be reminded that there’s a single amazing point in human history that, for the first time, envy is green – well, thank you for the reminder, is all i can say!

  3. “He’s equal with the Gods, that man
    Who sits across from you,
    Face to face, close enough, to sip
    Your voice’s sweetness,

    And what excites my mind,
    Your laughter, glittering. So,
    When I see you, for a moment,
    My voice goes,

    My tongue freezes. Fire,
    Delicate fire, in the flesh.
    Blind, stunned, the sound
    Of thunder, in my ears.

    Shivering with sweat, cold
    Tremors over the skin,
    I turn the color of dead grass,
    And I’m an inch from dying.”

  4. ah i love it! here’s my fav sappho poem

    “and lovely laughing — oh it
    puts the heart in my chest on wings
    for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
    is left in me”

  5. Isn’t everyone mad there isn’t time to learn all the world’s languages and read the great works in the language they were written?

    • i’m pretty mad, yeah.
      i hate reading things in english and then in the language they were written in and feeling completely betrayed.
      i want to feel betrayed in every language.

    • Definitely! I love languages and I’m a little bitter that even if I had the $$ for classes, I could still never learn all of them!

  6. What’s amazing about Sappho’s poetry is how well it ages. Especially when I read the more modern translations, I’m amazed these words are over 2,500 years old.

    “Again love, the limb-loosener, rattles me
    a crawling beast.”

    “Stand up and look at me, face to face
    My friend,
    Unloose the beauty of your eyes…”

  7. once upon a time there was a dude who was really into Sappho.
    he’s the inventor of the root word for kiss in the romance languages.

  8. “We put the urn aboard ship
    with this inscription:

    This is the dust of little
    Timas who unmarried was led
    into Persephone’s dark bedroom

    And she being far from home, girls
    her age took new-edged blades
    to cut, in mourning for her,
    these curls of their soft hair”

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