Monday, June 25, 2012

The Mnemosyne Weekly: Poem Seventeen (Sappho)

I was overcome by a wild sort of joy earlier in the week when I realized that if I ever get stranded on an island or out at sea without (God forbid) any books, the Mnemosyne poems could be my constant companions. If I ever get put in solitary confinement, locked in a mental institution, lost in the desert--whatever happens--I have these poems with me now, just as I have my own hands and feet. And I believe they would be just as useful.

My selection this week is a powerful Sappho poem translated by Willis Barnstone. Just for fun, here is a link to grouping of different translations of this poem: See which one you like best. I chose the Barnstone translation because, for me, the compactness of lines and language intensifies the punch of desire.

If you're not familiar with Sappho, she was an ancient Greek poet from the island of Lesbos (630/612 - 570).

As well, if you're new to the blog, you might want to look at the first Mnemosyne Post to find out what this project is all about.


To me he seems like a god
as he sits facing you and
hears you near as you speak
softly and laugh

in a sweet echo that jolts
the heart in my ribs. For now
as I look at you my voice
is empty and

can say nothing as my tongue
cracks and slender fire quick
under my skin. My eyes are dead
to light, my ears


  1. I like Sappho. I wish we had more-complete originals of her work, for so many translations extrapolate greatly from the bits and pieces we have. I love Anne Carson's "If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho" for its attempt to stay close to the originals. I do like the version you picked out.


  2. I so agree, Malcolm! It would be wonderful to have more!I will definitely check out the Anne Carson book. Thanks for telling me about it.