Wednesday, October 24, 2007

An impossible task

'And what did you speak about?' I asked, as we stood by the roadside in the humming silence.
'Well, my paper was on just one of Sappho's poems, possibly her last, we can't be sure. It's one of the most beautiful poems ever written. Almost Chinese!' And she laughed.
'Would I know it?'
'Do you know Greek?'
'Then you don't know it!' It wasn't said mockingly, but was deeply meant.
'Well, tell me about it.' I felt quite enlivened.
She glanced at the watch on her slim, brown arm. 'Tell you what: let's sit on the beach for half an hour and look at the sea. Does that sound good to you? I have to leave at four, and I can't think of a nicer way to end my stay. The sea and Sappho.'
So, while I stared at the red and blue caiques bobbing on the horizon - a scene Sappho herself would have found utterly familiar - my still nameless friend from Massachussetts, after collecting her thoughts, began to tell me about Sappho's perfect poem.
'Deduke men a seldna,' she began softly, sifting pebbles through her fingers,
'kedi Pleiiades mesaide
nuktes para derket ora
ego de mona katevdo.'
'It sounds beautiful,' I said.
'Do you think so? What do you hear?'
I was stumped. was this a test? 'Perhaps you should let me hear it again.' So again I listened to the trickle of simple syllables. Deduke men a seldna...
'Well,' I said, wishing I'd said nothing, 'it sounds liquid, like water trickling over stones. What does it mean?'
'That's the problem, isn't it. That's what I meant when I said that if you don't speak Greek, you don't know the poem. And that's what I was talking about at the conference. Oh, I can give you a version of it in English, if you'd like me to, but it partly means what you just said: it's partly about trickling away. All those vowels, so few consonants. Yet, as soon as I try to tell you what the poem says, you'll hear my mouth fill up with lumpy English consonants, you'll lose the sense of something flowing.'
'I wish you'd have a go.'
'Gone is the moon, gone
the Pleiades, it's past midnight,
and time's flashing by, yet
I lie alone here.'
Was that all? It sounded so ordinary. Moon, stars, midnight, time passing - hadn't I heard it all before?
'You're disappointed, aren't you?'
'A little.'
She laughed. 'I'm not surprised. You see what's miraculous about these lines in Greek is that they're at once so limpid - even you could hear it - yet so tightly, so seamlessly knit. Let me put it differently: they're like a drop of water on a leaf. Now, that's something you've seen many thousands of times, and, if you paid attention in your physics class, you know that a droplet on a leaf has the shape and colour it has for a myriad of complex reasons - all sorts of tensions are at play on the waxy surface, and there are angles to the sun to consider as well. Yet what could be simpler, more familiar than a drop of water on a leaf? Well, when you speak Greek, and read this poem of Sappho, it's like becoming instantly aware of all those angles and tensions, as well as the everyday beauty of the leaf - simultaneously. So it's a wonder - there's no other word.'
We sat there in silence for a moment or two. I felt touched by an unexpected melancholy.
'There's more to it than that, of course. Somehow, in just sixteen words and thirty-two syllables (eight a line), Sappho has been able to make a distillation of sadness sound almost like the jaunty plucking of a lyre. It's about stillness - lying alone in contemplation - as well as about movement - towards old age and death, presumably, but also, from the wider world's perspective, a new day. It's about desire, clearly, and waiting - it's drenched with the anguish of hopeless waiting - yet only one tiny, insignificant word, mona, 'alone', hints at this. Sappho has taken plain, worn-out old mona and somehow, by uttering it at just the right instant, perfectly angled to the poem, she's turned it into a knife in the heart.
'It's pitiless and tender at the same time, this poem... So when I recited those lines to you in English... Gone is the moon, gone the Pleiades, it's past midnight... and so on, I knew I wasn't reciting Sappho's poem for you.'
'Still it was worth doing.'
'Oh, yes. Absolutely. An impossible task, but none the less worth doing.'

[Corfu, Robert Dessaix, 2001. pp203-7]


Anonymous said...

that is so beautiful

jm said...

I'm glad you liked it. I really enjoyed reading the book over the summer holidays. It's very well written and combines a lot of things I'm interested in; classics, Gerald Durrell, the Habsburgs, as well as a few things I know nothing about, like the plays of Chekhov, but which sound really interesting. For what it's worth I don't think I fully agree with what the woman in this quote says about reading poetry in it's original language...

sarah s said...

OMG misplaced apostrophe! I would expect better from a self-proclaimed grammar nerd.
PS: Excellent post!