sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2013-04-02 05:27 pm

ἀγήραον ἄνθρωπον ἔοντ' οὐ δύνατον γένεσθαι

My poem "Ψάπφοι Σελάννα" is now online at Apex Magazine #47. It is in very fine company—fiction by Sofia Samatar and Daniel Abraham, nonfiction by Amal El-Mohtar. The title means "The Moon to Sappho" in seventh-century Aeolic Greek, the poet's own dialect. Points of origin include [ profile] skogkatt's "I Dreamed the Moon" and [ profile] cucumberseed's comment on it at Arisia ("The moon gets better every time"), but the rest just turned up one night in the shower.

Further references under the cut, because what the hell: I never write notes for my poems unless asked and [ profile] xjenavivex said she liked hearing about the origins of my work.

1. One of Sappho's epithets is μελλιχόμειδε, "honey-smiling." She is also called ἰόπλοκος, "violet-plaited." I conjectured a combination of the two, ἰόμειδος: "violet-smiling." I've never seen it attested, but we have so little of the ancient world in many ways; I can't be the first person who liked the sound of the line.

2. The Pleiades are always associated with Sappho for me, because of the famous fragment (fr. Adesp. 976):

δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληΐαδες, μέσαι δὲ
νύκτες, παρὰ δ’ ἔρχετ’ ὤρα,
ἐγὼ δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

The moon has sunk down
and the Pleiades, it is mid-
night, and the hours go by
and I lie alone.

3. Sappho is supposed to have been born c. 620 BCE at Eressos on Lesbos (modern Ερεσός). The seaside of Skala Eresou (Σκάλα Ερεσού) is characterized by its dark grey sand, a sign of the island's volcanic history. Wikipedia believes it is a major site of pilgrimage for lesbian women; I have no idea if this is true, but I have to say I wouldn't mind the idea.

4. There is no single name associated with Sappho as lover or muse. The poems speak of Atthis, Anaktoria, Dika, Gyrinno and others, sometimes nameless but female as in fr. 1; she finds men sometimes beautiful too. The only tradition about a husband is almost certainly a joke: the tenth-century Byzantine Suda calls him "Kerkylos of Andros," which is a lot like "Dick from the Isle of Man."

6. Viticulture on Lesbos goes back to the seventh century, when wines from the island were market-competitive with those from Chios, generally considered the benchmark for booze in the classical world. Pramnian wine (Πράμνειος οἶνος) was the most notable of the vintages produced on Lesbos; ancient descriptions of it disagree, some claiming it was a harsh, dry, black wine and others describing it as dark and very sweet, but either way it rates a mention in the Iliad and the Odyssey. (It figures in both as the major ingredient in a kykeon (κυκεών), a hot drink of barley, wine, honey, and sometimes herbs and cheese; quick and restorative, served to weary travelers and warriors and eaten to break the fast at the end of the Eleusinian Mysteries. People with more ideas about caudle than myself can vote which kind of wine they think would work better.) The name seems to have referred to something about the style of production rather than the place of origin.

7. "Come here to me": as the poet commands the goddess Aphrodite in fr. 1 and 2, τυίδ’ ἔλθε, ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, δεῦρύ με. (I heard it as δεῦτε μοι, but that is her countryman and contemporary Alkaios.) Selene's husband is Endymion, the shepherd who dreamed he held the moon in his arms and fathered her fifty daughters—the Menai, the fifty months of the Olympiad—without ever waking, never-aging, eternally beautiful in his sleep.

8. The image of the stars surrounding the moon is taken from Sappho fr. 34 and 96:

ἄστέρες μεν ἀμφὶ κάλαν σελάνναν
ἂψ ἀπυκρύπτοισι φάεννον εἶδος,
ὄπποτα πλήθοισα μάλιστα λάμπηι
γᾶν . . .

Around the beautiful moon, the stars
draw back their shining forms
whenever she shines at her fullest
over the earth . . .

νῦν δὲ Λύδαισιν ἐνπρέπεται γυναί-
κεσσιν, ὠς ὄτ᾽ ἀελίω
δύντος ἀ βροδοδάκτυλος σελάννα

πάντα περρέχοισ᾽ ἄστρα, φάος δ᾽ ἐπί-
σχει θάλασσαν ἐπ᾽ ἀλμύραν
ἴσως καὶ πολυανθέμοις ἀρούραις

But now among the Lydian women she stands
out, as sometimes when the sun
has set and the rose-fingered moon

outdoes all the stars and her light
reaches over the salt sea
and many-flowered fields alike

9–12. There is a tradition about Sappho's death that she threw herself from the White Rock of Leukas for love of a boatman named Phaon. For everyone who bristles at this death for a woman who wrote of other women's love, see Gregory Nagy's "Phaethon, Sappho's Phaon, and the White Rock of Leukas: 'Reading' the Symbols of Greek Lyric" (Harvard Studies in Classical Philology Vol. 77, 1973) for a way of looking at this story that is not merely the flattening of the poet into acceptably tragic heterosexuality. The silvering of the poet's hair and the adjective ἀγήραος—not just ageless, but unaging—never growing old—come from the Oxyrhynchus fragment published in 2005. The rest is me.

Sappho is one of the earliest poets who was important to me, who took forever for me to write about. I tried a little last year. And this poem.

I slept three to four hours last night. I don't know where the Pleiades were. It was raining.

[identity profile] 2013-04-02 10:19 pm (UTC)(link)
For everyone who bristles at this death for a woman who wrote of other women's love, see Gregory Nagy's "Phaethon, Sappho's Phaon, and the White Rock of Leukas: 'Reading' the Symbols of Greek Lyric" (Harvard Studies in Classical Philology Vol. 77, 1973) for a way of looking at this story that is not merely the flattening of the poet into acceptably tragic heterosexuality.

Thank you for the reference, because I bristle; I'm interested in what it has to say.

Thank you for the poem. A piece of Sappho's will probably be my first tattoo, when I get around to having one done. She is... wondrous.

[identity profile] 2013-04-03 12:43 am (UTC)(link)

Also, now I know what kykeon is.

[identity profile] 2013-04-03 04:15 am (UTC)(link)
Amazing! I loved it without notes, but I love the notes too.

[identity profile] 2013-04-03 05:55 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you for sharing these notes. It's always good to know more about such a lovely piece of poetry.

I'm embarassed to admit that I couldn't find the Pleiades even if it weren't raining. I can find Orion, the Plough, and, through use of the former, the North Star, but that's about it.

[identity profile] 2013-04-03 12:23 pm (UTC)(link)
You might without knowing it was them. They're the only tiny, tight cluster of stars in the whole sky. They look like they're awed to be up in the heavens and have to keep close to each other. They look like a very tiny, mini dipper.

[identity profile] 2013-04-05 04:16 am (UTC)(link)
Thanks! I suppose it's likely I might've seen them, but I'd not have known it was them.

I suppose I should figure out where to find them so that I'll know in the future. I found one explanation that said to use Orion to find them, but I'm not sure if Orion's still above the horizon right now.

[identity profile] 2013-04-03 06:16 am (UTC)(link)
Beautiful. Thank you. My love to the Pleiades.


[identity profile] 2013-04-03 12:22 pm (UTC)(link)
I am so *very* glad [ profile] xjenavivex thought to ask you about origins, because I love what you've shared here. I think I'd like to try making kykeon. Wouldn't it be great to serve--maybe after a moonlight hike to the top of a tall spot to sing to the Pleiades?

And yes, "violet-smiling" is lovely.

[identity profile] 2013-04-03 12:25 pm (UTC)(link)
Love your poem.

3 is true. I have also been there, because Sappho, but just saying I have been there is enough to make some people look at me sideways. I have been there twice.

There's a lovely modern statue of Sappho in Mytiline harbour.

[identity profile] 2013-04-03 12:56 pm (UTC)(link)
It's a beautiful poem, though I admit my very first response was, "but I like moping at the Pleiades..."

[identity profile] 2013-04-03 05:30 pm (UTC)(link)
I loved the poem. I read it first. Alone. It was stunning.

I think though, that I might beg you a hundred thousand times to whisper the secrets of your poems, now knowing what I know. This made the poem much more meaningful to me as I wouldn't have known all of these beautiful things were tied together in your words. Thank you with deep gratitude for taking the time to share this with us, with me.
selidor: (Default)

[personal profile] selidor 2013-04-04 03:22 am (UTC)(link)
Ah! This ties together many more aspects for me. Thank you for writing the notes to what stood alone happily before.

I wonder how a kykeon would do with a pinot noir - hmm, no, probably a shiraz, something more bold and brash to go with the honey. Also, the choice of honey would be tricky.

[identity profile] 2013-04-04 01:35 pm (UTC)(link)
This makes me remember with pinpoint precision and a great deal of warmth the reasons I fell in love with you. I am unabashedly pleased that you wrote all this up. Thank you.

(I thought about not saying that first part, for those coming late to the theatre, but it was very vividly true when I had finished reading this post, and it's not like you can't stay a tiny bit in love with old friends. Jesus, very old friends, at this point.) return to the usual tone of things, must we have thoughts on caudle? Gick.

[identity profile] 2013-04-08 01:03 am (UTC)(link)
Take a quart of cream, and mix it with a pint of ale, then beat the yolks of ten eggs, and the whites of four; when they are well beaten, put them to the cream and ale; sweeten it to your taste, and slice some nutmeg in it; set it over the fire, and keep it stirring all the while; when it is thick, and before it boils, take it off, and pour it into the bason you serve it in to the table.

Or don't because everyone has fled AND DIED.