Sappho can and will speak frankly about sex. In the famous Fragment 31, she’s open about her jealousy of a man “equal to the gods,” one who commands the laughter and delight of a woman she desires. And below “Dawn,” standing by her bed in gold sandals, could be thought a lover about to leave:
Standing by my bed Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard) Standing by my bed In gold sandals Dawn that very moment awoke me
I’m chuckling to myself, thinking about a sentence of Maureen McLane’s. She was talking about the idealism of the young and said something to the effect of “teenagers actually enjoy sex.” Insecurity cascades unceasingly when one tries to believe oneself desirable, but regrets about not going to the gym or taking care of one’s skin are minor when compared to looking in the mirror and staring down one’s genetic inheritance. Wondering if one was actually made to be loved.
I’m not chuckling anymore.
For a moment, though, we can imagine being gently awoken by the light of dawn, quietly surprised. There are erotic overtones, sure, but they serve the idea that someone or something, maybe the whole of nature, sees you as beautiful. That you are not to be disturbed, that only the slightest feeling, in warm, bright degrees, should give you cause to stir.
From some random papyrus, we are given this thoughtless, gross misogyny about Sappho: “She was accused by some writers of being irregular in her way of life and a woman-lover. In appearance she seems to have been contemptible and ugly” (Papyri Oxyrhynchus 1800 frag. 1). Sappho’s own contemporary on Lesbos, Alkaios, addresses her thus: “O violet-haired, holy, honeysmiling Sappho” (Barnstone 209). For a moment, we know that it doesn’t matter at all how Sappho looked, but it certainly matters how she was treated.
A thought, perhaps not unrelated. If there is only natural light in the room, dawn being visitor enough, then this is a reflection on waking. Beginning to be in the world, active within. Natural light and being loved do tie together, and this is always a sudden revelation. I submit this has to do with understanding oneself as lovable, knowing oneself, but you will note that carries one away from more conventional needs.
Barnstone, Willis. Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho. Boston: Shambhala, 2006.