I did not care to study the ancient Greeks. Their mythic world and hero’s journey never spoke to me. My youthful pantheon was Ferlinghetti’s City Lights catalogue. After decades of glossing over the constant references to myths, philosophers and deities in literature and culture, it began to bother me that I was missing so much. Could I simply begin my study by reading Dan Beachy-Quick’s new translation of Sappho, Wind-Mountain-Oak: The Poems of Sappho (Tupelo Press, 2023)? Could I enjoy this book of poetry as a novice? During the month it was in the reading queue, I could not help but notice Sappho in my feed and scroll and literary wanderings. Without seeking her out, Sappho is everywhere.
How did Beachy-Quick manage all that cacophony? In 2020, when launching his poetry book ARROWS, he granted a brief but revealing interview and reading of his own poetry.1 He tells the interviewer that he has no website, no social media presence. Instead, a quiet life married to his high school sweetheart, a position at the university, his young child playing quietly behind him in the video. In addition, he was about to publish his first book of Greek translations, Stone Garlands: Six Poets from the Greek Lyric Tradition. He shares:
I have been studying ancient Greek, been trying to teach myself for seven years now… There have been wonderful insights… One of those is the root of the word poet, “poetes” which means most simply “a maker,” “a maker of poems.” There is a verb “poeo” that descends from that noun which means “I make or do” but in Greek there is another voice that English doesn’t have called the middle voice, and some verbs in the in the middle voice gain a slightly different definition. In the middle voice, “poeo” means “to consider” or “I consider” and it struck me as a fundamental truth about the nature of poetry as I understand it and as I most want to practice it. The poem is the thing in which consideration cannot begin until it’s made.
He then reads poems from ARROWS. Here is an excerpt of “Some Consequences of the Made Thing”:
Feel a silence there that reminds you of a scent.
Crushed grass the hooves galloped through
Or is it the binder’s glue?
Some silence never not real finally can be
Heard. Silence before the first words.
Precedent chaos. Or marrow work.
Or just the sound of the throat opening to speak.
His poetry evokes the etheric, the hypnotic, a soothing spaciousness. From his place of acknowledged privilege, he shares this luxury, of the quiet, the open window and the book before him.
Beachy-Quick the poet takes a different approach than the classicists to the dilemma of working with only fragments of the many Sappho poems lost to history, she who was singing around 600BC. His practical tools include a generous use of white space, popularized by 21st century experimental poetry, and a faithfulness to Sappho’s ancient meter, an eleven-syllable stanza line with a five-syllable closing line.
Another radical move is to reorder the poems by theme, abandoning 20th century systems of numbering used by papyrologists Lobel and Page, and another by Campbell (there may be others), that most translators appear to have used since. He creates a whole new book in this act, of using thematically linked language to tell a story, to give this body of work arc and meaning.
In “A Note on the Translation” he shares:
… I wanted to offer an ordering of these poems that give some sense of the epic journey any given life is… from wondrous recognition of the world, through erotic entanglement, to the sanctity of human bonding, to religion, to morals, to age… and then to death…
The second page of poetry reads:
so we can see
soon golden-sandaled Dawn
Beachy-Quick embraces the fragment but unclutters all that burdens the reader of anything but “just this.” It has the minimalist quality of haiku. The spare repetition, the opening note, sunrise nearly tangible.
This is very different from poet Anne Carson’s translation, for example, a widely available and respected version, which places fragments with parentheses where text is missing, on facing pages with original Greek. Emily Grover in her assessment of four different translations suggests Carson’s “leave(s) the reader perpetually conscious of the fragmentary nature of Sappho’s corpus.”2 Beachy-Quick’s uber fragmentation somehow makes the reader forget these are fragments at all.
Here is Carson, circa 1986,3 with a verse of fragment #31:
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
I seem to me.
And Beachy-Quick’s, faithful to the eleven-syllable line:
sweat pours off me like water as if I toiled
long, like a child, trembling takes hold of me,
more green than grass is green, I seem to myself
almost dying to die…
Stanley Lombardo’s 2002 translation,4 also sought to avoid clutter, reorder the fragments, and use an American idiom, but he seems to abandon meter altogether:
Like the sweet apple reddening on the topmost branch,
the topmost apple on the tip of the branch,
and the pickers forgot it,
well, no, they didn’t forget, they just couldn’t reach it.
As the sweet apple reddens on the high branch
High on the highest branch, that the apple-pickers forgot –
No, they didn’t forget, that apple they could not reach.
Beachy-Quick’s lyric essay, “On Sappho” leads the collection, itself a rendering of many sentence fragments that build on each other, that echo words into a song itself. It is a kind and gentle voice, a writer who admits he was personally shifted and moved spiritually by having brought this project through. He filtered Sappho through himself, and offers his channeling of the Goddess energy of the most famous of female poets, as its own song:
These are the songs she sings. Jealousy of the lover’s eye turned to another. Lust-songs and songs of fear. Complaint and rueful longing. Songs to pass the time while weaving. Songs that, plaiting tender stem to tender stem, make a green eternal crown. Song of the bride’s beautiful feet. Song of the purple hem. Brighter than bright. More golden than gold.
He then grounds this in some historical reference, in stories of the great Alexandria library lost, Saphho’s books lost, page by page to heat the baths, and the patriarchal myths that confuse her death. He discusses the work of her contemporaries: three pre-Socratic male philosophers who considered “boundlessness,” “astrology”, “water” as “the origin of all.” He asserts, “reading Sappho does in us as serious a philosophic work as does reading Anaximander.” I took his word on that.
He takes the title of his translation from this fragment, one in a grouping of six, a rendering of a love-sick girl:
Love shook frantic
my heart, wind crashes down on mountain oaks
One hundred years ago T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland and William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All were published. Ezra Pound had influenced them and a new generation of poets, intentionally shaking up the stale state of poetics by mandating the poet see “the thing itself,” to disdain abstract language, to use musicality in pursuit of a modern poetic sensibility. Pound’s correspondence with a young James Laughlin led to the founding of New Directions, publishing Lawrence Ferlinghetti among so many others. Pound wrote, “If you want to get to the gist of the matter go to Sappho…”5
According to Casey Bush, Mary Barnard, while still in college, began a lifelong correspondence with Pound. He urged her to learn Greek and translate Sappho, and she embraced his Modernist aesthetic in doing so. As Bush proposes, Barnard later set out to discover if all those flora in Sappho’s poems were actually magic mushrooms.6
It is Beachy-Quick’s belief that the words themselves can produce states ecstasy without “breaking open the head” (to quote Daniel Pinchbeck on the psychedelic experience). Words will dance within us. We can trip out just by reading them with openness.
Sappho was most certainly a singer, and the transcription for posterity an afterthought or the work of adoring fans, though some would argue this, too. Journeying through the poems in Wind-Mountain-Oak I could sense a certain pitch to Sappho’s singing voice, a sweet voice with a purpose, sometimes sultry, a Joni Mitchell or Jenny Lewis of ancient times.
Sappho does a lot of name dropping, perhaps because she was singing to these very same people, personal friends who share the same idols, who have shown up to this poetry reading, that late night jam session, a mutual friend’s wedding, rather than a list I needed to study (though Beachy-Quick does provide a section of “Personae” like the cast of characters before a play). Here, another whole page:
Leto and Niobe are very loving friends
There is a lot said and unsaid there with that choice of language. Beachy-Quick gives the space to imagine this friendship as any number of things.
Here is Barnard’s version:7
Leto and Niobe
Before they were mothers
Leto and Niobe
had been the most
devoted of friends
Barnard’s use of past perfect continuous tense made me curious. As it is with Sappho, even three words can open a rabbit hole of research. There are tales known to the teller and to the listener, all these other layers. The friendship of these two women refers to a mythic story of jealousy, ending with fourteen children murdered by deities. I think it was disturbing tales like these, along with the headless statues, that put me off from the Classics in the first place. Leto and Niobe are not listed among the “Personae” in Beachy-Quick’s translation.
Perhaps Beachy-Quick imagined, if this were my manuscript, half burned in a prairie wildfire, or the mouse eaten papers of a dead songwriting friend, and this is all that were left, what could I do to make it whole?
In “A Note on the Translation” he shares:
It is as just such a novice I have turned to Sappho’s poems, hoping no more than to apprentice myself the rites of her voice.
Perhaps certain scholars will be frustrated or thrilled in their attempts to match up the papyrologists’ numbers in versions of old to this one, for which there is no guide at the end (as Lombardo’s reordered version has.) Classicist Diane J. Rayor has updated her translation of Sappho and released it at the same time as Beachy-Quick’s.8 Perhaps others will also be published this year. That so many poets and scholars have been inspired to take on this project, to see it through their own acts of consideration, is to me fascinating in itself, and nearly impossible to catalogue.
Having come to Wind-Mountain-Oak as a novice, as an avid reader without any grounding in Classics, I found something unexpected: a lively, trippy, feminine, and Romantic book of spare and spacious poetics.
It seems to me that Beachy-Quick’s use of meter is what creates those psychedelic pulses, and his new ordering is a bold example of Zen “beginner’s mind.” He discovers a personal philosophy of “poeo” in middle voice through the act of translating itself. By his act of consideration, of the poem as an active thing, he brings Sappho’s songs to all who wish to love fully, with all its homely contradiction:
…a song sweet in the mouth
singing clear as the nightingale and bitterly
covered in dew ∎
- “Dan Beachy Quick on the Social Distance Reading Series,” Green Mountains Review, 2020, http://greenmountainsreview.com/project/dan-beachy-quick-on-the-social-distance-reading-series/
- Grover, Emma, “Finding Sappho: Four translations in conversation” Stanford Daily, 10/29/2017
- Sappho. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Translated by Anne Carson, Vintage Books, 2002
- Sappho., translated by Stanley Lombardo, Poems and fragments Hackett, 2002.
- Pound, Ezra, “A Retrospect and A Few Dont’s” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69409/a-retrospect-and-a-few-donts
- Bush, Casey, “Sisters Around the Cauldron – Mary Barnard and her Sappho”, The Decadent Review. 1/31/23 https://thedecadentreview.com/corpus/sisters-around-the-cauldron-mary-barnard-and-her-sappho/
- Sappho. Sappho: A New Translation. Translated by Mary Barnard. University of California Press, 1958
- Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works, 2nd edition. Translated by Diane J. Rayor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023