Sappho, “I took my lyre and said”

I took my lyre—Sappho at once pronounces herself bold, empowered, and vulnerable. Uttering a musical phrase invites others to be lost in note after note. Is there such a thing as a song sung only to oneself?

Sappho feels and wants those feelings to flow to those near and beyond. Song itself should do that; what’s curious is her prelude to playing and singing. Her speech to her lyre looks like a moment of hesitation, of stage fright:

I took my lyre and said
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I took my lyre and said:

Come now, my heavenly
tortoise shell: become
a speaking instrument

I took my lyre and said—maybe the easier scenario to imagine is Sappho outside, seated upon a smooth stone in the sunshine, playing before a crowd excited to hear her. In which case, this is banter at a live show. It could be pure confidence masquerading as timidity.

What if she’s actually nervous, though? Maybe she isn’t outside, surrounded by fans, but indoors, alone, speaking to an empty shell devoid of a living creature. Come now, my heavenly tortoise shell: become a speaking instrument—this doesn’t seem divine when those circumstances are imagined. She speaks to the shell but does not believe she has spoken at all. The need for a speaking instrument—not just sounds or syllables, not just ritual, but words unique and resonant—is pronounced.

The shell has become a lyre before; she has realized herself as a poet before. It’s the object which reminds her who she is. We could say, then, that there is a Muse, a heavenly beauty which may dazzle and blind us physically. The Muse takes away seeing this world for the truth of this world. It’s something beyond us that allows us to realize who we are, as we act in amazing ways without quite knowing what we’re doing.

When we are returned to the world at hand, it is frightfully ordinary. Objects seem dead and powerless. One has to regard the right ones as heaven-sent in order to redeem one’s own power.

Sappho, “I confess / I love that which caresses me”

Love should have warmth, Sappho says guiltily. I confess / I love that which caresses me.

Why voice any regret? Basic relationship advice, advice any one of us would readily give: Watch how a potential partner treats everyone around them, not just you. In other words, being friendly, warm, observant of manners and rules should be consistent behavior. Someone worthy of your love should cherish life and those around them. They should be open to intimacy as a part of this. A “caress” speaks to those expectations more than an isolated action, and one shouldn’t feel guilty for having high standards, right?

I confess / I love that which caresses me
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I confess

I love that
which caresses
me. I believe

Love has his
share in the
Sun’s brilliance
and virtue.

But Sappho does express guilt. Maybe she thinks herself easily manipulated—the feeling someone cares can be confused with excitement and vice versa. Getting a relationship, for most of us, does seem to depend on this game of “hard to get.” The less you’re around, the rarer your presence and touch, the more you are sought after. I can’t help but think that the logic of “hard to get” weaponizes absence, making the presence of a beloved too much a matter of excitement.

Sappho presses ahead. She’s not afraid to love despite the thought that how she loves could use improvement. I believe / Love has his share in the Sun’s brilliance and virtue. The Sun merely sheds light on things, letting them be brilliant and virtuous. It caresses gently, from a distance. When we see, we keep things at a distance—we don’t immediately grab and devour them.

Love is this beholding, not just continual presence or continual touch. That doesn’t mean more a more sensual approach is a terrible thing. It does mean a certain warmth—a desire to caress, not just be caressed—is at play.

Emily Dickinson, “An Hour is a Sea” (825)

An Hour is a Sea, I say to myself, wondering why today has looked like the same sheet of rain each hour I’ve been awake. But I also wonder why between the time I sang the Ninja Turtles theme loudly and my most recent oil change I blinked maybe a total of three times. The declaration “An Hour is a Sea” could either describe life as interminable repetition, or life as far too short. What might be Dickinson’s intent with these few lines?

"An Hour is a Sea" (825)
Emily Dickinson

An Hour is a Sea
Between a few, and me —
With them would Harbor be —

For a moment, Dickinson indulges this thought: you can’t really keep track of time—i.e. your life—alone. An Hour is a Sea / Between a few, and me / With them would Harbor be can be paraphrased thus: I feel endlessly lost without your company. This poem, to be sure, sits at the end of one of her letters. It works as a gorgeous, powerful way of saying “I hope to see you again.” It credits those she wants to see again with being a destination, safety (h/t practisingsands).

Then again, most of us for good reason treat Emily Dickinson as intensely private. Six years’ worth of poems, tied up in bundles, in a box under her bed. I don’t think she’s insincere in her hope for affectionate, appreciative company. However, this depends upon her journey, her hours upon the sea. That journey, the search for a harbor, seems to depend on the labor of understanding what truly constitutes “a few, and me,” as how a writer actually spends her hours can’t be neglected in the case of a poem with an audience so specific. Only with “a few,” and strangely enough “between a few,” can one bring “me” into relief.

Margaret Levine, “A Man I Knew”

It feels more than a mere obligation to be with family over the holidays. But even calling such relations “necessary” sounds like a feeble attempt at description. Regarding family, a primal consciousness is at play—Antigone must bury her brother, despite the law and its consequences, because her brother shares in her own creation. Not simply “flesh and blood,” but this “flesh and blood.” One might begin to think family matters dictate to the gods, not the other way around. A sense of being, anchored in what is natural, lending itself to the origins of convention: a name, an identity, a recognition of possession.

"A Man I Knew" (from Poetry 180)
Margaret Levine

has a condo

a maid who comes
every other week

kids who won't

are on the dresser
they float forever

like a boat

None of my fancy talk above seems adequate to describe being estranged from one’s own children. Kids who won’t [visit] / are on the dresser / they float forever / like a boat. The sensations evoked: being lost, adrift, drowning. Some essential part of you floats over you like a dream; you can’t access it, you’re not even sure why it’s necessary, you only feel pain. What we have been told is necessary has been tidily dispatched in the first few lines. There’s a condo / a maid who comes / every other week.

Many of us have grown up with this sort of parental rhetoric. Attend to your needs, make sure you’ve got a roof over your head and an income. If you have any other needs, go to church. This hardly seems adequate in the face of missing one’s own children, and is certainly not adequate for understanding why one would have children or miss one’s own children in the first place. Love is a commandment as well as a strange and complicated realm where a picture on a dresser says far more than a condo or cleaning service. The holidays are difficult for many us because we’re dealing with a materialism so thorough it has lost the ability to articulate its own needs. Some “float forever,” visible but gone.

Robert Lax, “herds of dark crea tures”

Like a moonbeam, “herds of dark crea tures” descends, syllable by syllable itself.

But it begins with looking upwards, only able to discern the smallest shapes of dark in the moonlight. There are birds in the sky, hundreds of them, but sight isn’t really how this is known. Fluttering sounds, maybe smells, a taste in the air, the feel of a great movement above—every other sense “sees” in dim, reflected, nearly flickering light.

 Herds of dark crea tures / gath er, and the senses gather into awareness:

"herds of dark crea tures" (h/t Lindsay Choi)
Robert Lax




Lax gives every syllable a line to great effect. Just as the creatures gather, just as our senses gather, the mystery of what is actually occurring is preserved. If the Word was present at Creation, it is plausible that primordial chaos consisted of utterances, of syllables, with which it could articulate and create. What’s funny is that some syllables are fully formed words. Are the ones we think lacking—are they words of another language? How does language make sense?

Herds of dark crea tures / gath er in the sky is an attempt to grasp an experience. Details are given as details are noticed: the progression of a mind is on display. A picture, though, has to already be assumed in order to understand what is occurring. One could say putting ink on paper entails a similar mystery. Even though paper is bright, the scratchings on it won’t make sense until they are assumed to be put together for the sake of communication.

The mystery is motion. Moon lights their manes—these birds are gathering and will go together. But where will they go? They’ve got manes like horses, and in their way, they roam free. In order to grasp a sense, we have been taught not just to look for order or things resembling order, but definite purpose. We believe sense has a knowable end, that things must be put in their proper place in order to be understood. Lax seems to think otherwise. Those birds, like horses, have spirit. They go as they will. They are observed by one who carefully notes how he himself observes.