The Perfect Queer poem is an eight-week mini-series that pairs a queer poet with a uniquely queer situation. This week Natalie will guide you through Sappho’s illuminating lessons.
Imagine poetry before anyone thought to call the work of men Western civilization, before Plato cast poets out of his Republic, before Penelope waited up for her husband to come home. Imagine the sun on your skin on an isle off the west coast of Turkey, a girl in a diaphanous dress with violets on her lap. Imagine there is no history other than the one you share with this girl.
So much of what we might think of as queer lyric poetry comes is set by Sappho’s example: her attempts to speak her desire so emphatically that it wills love into existence, her drama that always teeters into hyperbole (“I simply want to be dead” as a poem opener), her longing for an absent beloved, the art of recovery reading her work requires.
To read her poetry is to meditate on blank space, since much of her work has been lost to time and exists almost only in fragments. Many of her fragments are only a single word or phrase — “paingiver,” “daring,” “I might go” — that sets the precedent for what poetry, that genre that rests on the knife’s edge of possibility and loss, can offer. When Anne Carson translates Sappho, she leaves in the brackets to “imply a free space of imaginal adventure.” The words the brackets suggest might be missing or illegible, or even just an incompleteness that does not need remedying.
Only one poem of Sappho’s exists in its entirety, “Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind.” The poem is a conversation between Sappho and Aphrodite, whom the poet has supplicated for help in love (now again, the goddess points out). It is a poem for an altar, to be whispered from your most desperate heartspace, when this time, this time, you must have “what I want to happen most of all / in my crazy heart.” Lyric poetry, Sappho’s genre, is set to music. It relies on repetition, a vocalization of desire so insistent it must create the world it wants. Poems like these are prayers, offerings, spells.
We do not have less for the loss of Sappho’s full poems. There is a Sappho fragment for every possible queer scenario:
When she comes first: “You got there first: beautiful”
When you wish you could undo your first time when you were closeted: “do I still yearn for my virginity?”
When you’re not even mad, actually: “but I am not someone who likes to wound / rather I have a quiet mind”
When your queer bff finally meets someone nontoxic: “may you sleep on the breast of your delicate friend”
When she has pulled a Tina: “but you love some man more than me”
When your barista crush calls your name: “girl sweetvoiced”
When some rando male is harassing you on twitter: “whiter by far than an egg”
When you feel yourself dissociating and you’re trying to stay in your body: “ ]anxiety ] ground”
When you’re a Libra sun or moon: “I don’t know what to do / two states of mind in me”
When your grandmother is telling her friends about your relationship: “Leto and Niobe were beloved friends”
When your worst ex swears they’ve changed: “lyre lyre lyre”
But the one I return to most is this simple prayer:
Someone will remember us
even in another time
We don’t know very much about Sappho’s life. She lived on the isle of Lesbos and was exiled to Sicily. She may have had a daughter; she never mentions her father. For as long as there have been scholars, they have argued about Sappho’s lesbianism and her promiscuity. But what I love about this particular fragment is that it doesn’t express a long for her name to be remembered to history. Hers wasn’t a desire for individual glory. What she wanted remembered was “us,” the bond shared between women, of course.
Sometimes, I read the fragment as an echo of another, “as long as you want,” perhaps the sweetest promise you can make a lover. Other times, I read it as a consolation on leaving a lover, as in Fragment 94, where she asks her soon to be ex to remember her, the beautiful times they shared, and reminds her, “and neither any nor any / holy place no / was there from which we were absent.”
Imagine a love so fully present that there is no place, no time, in the history of the world where your love was not known.