'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?'
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]