Sappho’s Gaps: a review of If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson

By Barry McKinnon | November 11, 2004

As a university student, I remember staring at Ezra Pound’s Cantos for a long while before reading them. I was intimidated by their epic length, – this 800 page complex mix/collage asking for a knowledge of foreign and ancient languages, an ability to read Egyptian and Chinese ideographics, and that a reader know world history, art history, obscure political, social, and economic dimensions. Even a cursory glance at the monster revealed its epic demand: a life time of study, as they say. Not having a large sense of a scholarly lifetime ahead, yet attracted to Pound’s rhythms and seriousness and poetics (i.e. the grumpy but necessary ABC of Reading) – I decided to read the Cantos cover to cover. Fast, as it turned out. I let my eye glance thru this world of language and rhythm, skipping what I didn’t know, or could not decipher, to the next line and the next. A few days later, and many years later, I could say: “I’m reading the Cantos“. (and I’m not finished with them yet). My modus was simple: get what you can in the poem’s emotional urgency and information: this is the world falling apart – Pound’s poetry as locus, witness, and revelation to the heavy dissolution when the centre cannot hold.

I think it was Robert Duncan who once said that the poets who are truly mad (in a modern context) are the ones who insist on end rhyme and closed form. To follow this idea – to be sane in poetry is to remove imposition and presumption of “the whole” and view the fragments that lead to what one could impossibly and at best, imagine as the whole. Hard as Pound might have tried to write a poem of “coherence” (perhaps the real source of Pound’s obsessive and arch conservatism) – we know by his own admission that the epic failed him. Ironic that the Cantos humanly and understandably end with a lyric: Pound clinging for dear life to Olga Rudge. Great fragments as accumulations to a great poetry.

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, by Anne Carson in another way, provokes similar thinking about form, the act and transformations that take place in translations, the dynamics of lyric poetry & more importantly, this: the approach and place a reader takes when reading a poem in which the content it might once have contained has literally fallen apart.

Sappho, as we’re told by Carson in her laconic introduction: … “was a musician. Her poetry is lyric, that is, composed to be sung to the lyre. She addresses her lyre in one of her poems (fr l18) and frequently mentions music, songs, and singing. Ancient vase painters depict her with her instrument … .All Sappho’s music is lost … Sappho was also a poet … Sappho lived in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos from about 630 B.C. …

In her note “On the Text” Carson writes: “In translating I tried to put down all that can be read of each poem in the plainest language I could find, using where possible the same order of words and thoughts as Sappho did. I like to think, the more I stand out of the way, the more Sappho shows through. This is an amiable fantasy (transparency of self) within which most translators labour. If light appears

not ruining the eyes (as Sappho says)

but strengthening, nourishing and watering

-Aelius Aritides Orations 18.4

we undo a bit of the cloth.”

And this Carson does: Sappho, once informed by the muses, has now become the fragmented muse – and Carson, poet, translator, now out of the way, lets Sappho sing again.

The book begins with a complete and beautiful thematic translation.

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,

child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you

do not break with hard pains,

O lady, my heart

The poem ends a page later:

Come to me now: loose me from hard

care and all my heart longs

to accomplish, accomplish. You

be my ally.

In the 350 pages to follow, however, (half in Greek) we mostly enter the broken text of a “spangled mind”, and “crazy heart” – breaking as heart and mind do in poetry and life, to pieces.

On page 7 we see the first series of brackets] [ They indicate the parts lost. The papyrus is a riddled terrain, and what’s left of it is fragile & disintegrating – an ancient weave that would fall apart to the touch, will fall apart with time. (Note: A reader needs to look at Carol Devine Carson’s splendid spine design: here you’ll see the papyrus, the literal gaps & missing chunks where black letters reach their exit point to disappear in white space& formless light.)

Once back to the text, proceed to read, but not with expectation of a closed lyric narrative. Sappho’s text becomes a scatter of lines that have curious meanings, or none at all, because of their incompleteness.




]I have

] of girls

Here are a few of the-more-complete connections: messenger of spring

nightingale with a voice of longing.

or: may you sleep on the breast of your delicate friend

or the epigraphic: the wisdom of wealth without virtue is no harmless neighbor

but a mixture of both attains the height of happiness

and on, again, to sections like this:

] to hold

] spangled

It’s useless to guess at what isn’t there, although once you see the brackets and the empty space, there is sensation: a subliminal wordless curiosity? a thought, a silence attempting to be a word? or the words we guess at to fill in for those who cannot speak? Sappho’s gaps act as a forlorn and momentary amusement until the eye attaches to the next line or fragment. Simply, it’s best to be amused and/or oddly enlightened by these gaps as an energy/non energy sans the anxiety of insistence on philological meaning.

I want to say something but shame

prevents me

What precedes this line? or was meant to follow it? we ask. Or ask: If not, winter, what? What? if not, winter.

In this process of reading, the reader becomes self consciously bandied in and out of a world of lyric language that does begin take marvelous weight and shape as Sappho’s disintegrated lines project the riven voice of unrequited love and desire. Her fragments, silences, and unexpected clarities (while form & content fall apart) enter poetry’s timeless arc so its music be made new again.

Barry McKinnon

1113 words, November 11th, 2004 (A slightly different version of this review appeared in The Vancouver Review)


  • Barry McKinnon

    Barry McKinnon was born in 1944 in Calgary, Alberta where he grew up. In 1965, after two years of college, he went to Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in Montreal and took poetry courses with Irving Layton. He graduated in 1967 with a BA and in 1969 with an MA from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and was hired that same year to teach English at The College of New Caledonia in Prince George, British Columbia, where he has lived ever since.(McLennan)

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