Sappho, "In the spring twilight"

...when Sappho intones “In the spring twilight // The full moon is shining,” I get jealous.

Sappho, "In the spring twilight"

I like presenting short poems. If a line presents itself as quotable, or an image seems distinct, that's immediately valuable. For example, Kay Ryan's "Linens," where she describes a tremendous tension abiding in a household while more and more things find themselves meticulously folded. Having something like that poem on hand for teaching, a presentation, or even just small talk can be helpful.

Presenting Sappho, I feel, is a challenge. I don't know that anyone is going to talk about "spring twilight" or people moving like they're near an altar. It's not that the fragment lacks value, but that so much depends on my writing alone. In what's below, I've focused on imagining Sappho as a performer. If you like it, another essay on Sappho, this one a bit longer: "The Folds of Love".

Today has been horribly humid. Rain threatened the whole day, but not a drop fell. While I liked the gray, cloudy skies, the air was a disgusting heat. It was too easy to break a sweat doing the smallest things outside.

Full moon and branches
Photo by Ganapathy Kumar / Unsplash

So when Sappho intones “In the spring twilight // The full moon is shining,” I get jealous. Yeah, I know. Islands at the edge of the Mediterranean can be muggy and miserable too. But here, in Barnard’s translation, she sings three sorts of light. “Spring twilight,” where the sky might feature a rich purple or blue. Stars, perhaps, begin to peek out. “The full moon is shining;” it will seem so much brighter as night descends.

It’s like she builds a whole season from a vision of light. The Scholastics had this idea called the “proper sensibles,” where if senses were directed to their proper object they could not err. The eyes could not make a mistake about light.

In the spring twilight
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

In the spring twilight

The full moon is shining:
Girls take their places
as though around an altar

“This is spring,” this fragment declares to me. And while nearly every comment on Sappho is fan-fiction, what we have left of her corpus, I think, shows a performer who does stage banter all the time. I mean, we look for recordings of live shows to see how epic a star can make a moment. Can they really amp up a crowd by promising them ice cream or doing the most over-the-top dance? I can’t help but feel that’s Sappho’s whole schtick. Yeah, there’s a “poem,” but most of it is her dropping the names of the audience and telling mildly embarrassing stories. Or talking about someone everyone knows who got married, or died.

I imagine this could go as far as making a funny noise with the lyre and dramatically shrieking. Maybe taking a long pause, staring at something, getting everyone else to stare and then resuming the song.

So. I’ve got no clue why “Girls take their places / as though around an altar.” Maybe there’s a ritual happening that night. Maybe, if the sky is so lovely, people respond naturally to its beauty. But right now, I feel like she’s describing her audience to themselves. It’s a great night, she’s found a rock in a field to sit on, and she’s brought out the lyre. People are going to leave the house to see what’s happening, and she’s not going to feel guilty if the poem is half done. The performance is a form of giving them attention. If they don’t like it, they were outside on a spring evening, and a greater power can’t help but be pleased.