THE STACKS Travel Diary


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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share some koptoplakous
for an ancient & honored poet’s birthday.
** Linger to ponder what all can still be found among missing pieces.
** Savor a last ½ cup on a tour through Greece, circa 1989.
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First Sip:

not one girl I think
who looks on the light of the sun
will ever
have wisdom
like this

– Fragment #56
translation by Anne Carson

Ceramic Vase Painting of Sappho
circa 470 BCE
Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard


Slice of Cake:

someone will remember us
I say
even in another time

– Fragment #147
translation by Anne Carson1

What we know about the poet Sappho comes to us in fragments:
Fragments of praise for her songs and poems.
Fragments of clues to her life story.
And fragments of the poems themselves—poems found on papyrus
that has been torn and worn to threads.

The Hype…

The white columns of Sappho’s lovely song
endure and will endure,
speaking out loud . . .
as long as ships sail from the Nile.

– anonymous Greek author 2

Sappho was wildly successful—probably during her lifetime
and certainly for several centuries after.

The words and music of Sappho is lauded in dozens of ancient texts.

At the Library of Alexandria, scholars named Sappho
one of the ‘nine lyric geniuses.’
(The other eight are all men.) 2

Sappho is an amazing thing…
In all of recorded history
not one woman can even come close
to rivaling her in the grace of her poetry.

– Strabo
1st century Greek historian1

by James Pradier (1852)
Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Her face was on the coins of Mytilene;
Her statue in the town hall of Syracuse.2
Aristotle called her ‘honored, though she was a woman.’
Even Plato—no big fan of poetry—called Sappho the ‘Tenth Muse.’ 1
(The other nine are all Goddesses.)

The Ancient Greeks called her simply ‘The Poetess’
(just as they called Homer ‘The Poet’).

Beyond all this praise, what do we know of Sappho herself?

The Homelife

The greatest problem for Sappho studies
is that there’s so little Sappho to study.

– Daniel Mendelsohn2


but I am not someone who likes to wound
rather I have a quiet mind

– Fragment #120
translation by Anne Carson

Almost everything we know about Sappho’s life comes from clues within her poems themselves.
Here’s the list:

Sappho lived during the 7th century BCE.
Her home was the Greek island of Lesbos.
Her parents were (most likely) wealthy.
She (most likely) had three brothers.
Her family fled or was exiled to Sicily, probably around 600 BCE.
She (most likely) had a husband.
She (most likely) had a daughter named Cleïs.
She (most likely) had lovers, perhaps several, and most of them were probably female.
She (most likely) lived into her 50s at least.

…Beyond this is only speculation.3

I don’t know what to do
two states of mind

in me

– Fragment #51
translation by Anne Carson

But, of course, here’s the problem with trying to
mine a person’s work looking for factual information:
What if her writing simply isn’t autobiographical?

For instance, Sappho has many poems that seem to be written for weddings.
What if she wrote these verses as a voice for bridal couples
at weddings where she was merely the musician?

all night long
might sing of the love between you and the bride
with violets in her lap

wake! and go call
the young men so that
no more than the bird with piercing voice
shall we sleep

– Fragment #30
translation by Anne Carson

And yet…
Say it isn’t true!
Who can read her poetry and not believe her words?  Not me…
Surely all that passionate beauty is personal,
is heartfelt,
is real.

you came and I was crazy for you
and you cooled my mind that burned with longing

– Fragment #48
translation by Anne Carson


The Work Itself…

Sappho was prolific enough to fill nine volumes—
that’s maybe ten thousand lines of poetry.
From that, we have only one complete poem
plus fragments of fewer than 200 others, some no more than a word or two.

Side Note:
Sappho’s poetry was collected
and each fragment given a number by

Eva-Maria Voigt in 1971.
Translators of Sappho have been using
this numbering system ever since.

In her lifetime, it appears that
Sappho was known as musician, more than a poet.
She played the lyre and she wrote her lyrical poems to be sung.

Her emphasis on emotion,
on subjective experience, and on the individual
marks a stark contrast between her work and
the epic, liturgical, or dramatic poetry of the period.

Her poetry was personal and passionate and unusual for her day.

Sappho was no epic poet,
rather she composed lyrics:
short, sweet verses on a variety of topics
from hymns to the gods, marriage songs,
and mini-tales of myth and legend.

– Marguerite Johnson5

The one complete poem we have is called Ode to Aphrodite (Fragment #1).

It begins with the poet calling on the goddess to come to her.
It then switches, in the middle of a line,
to a list of questions—
playful, indulgent questions—
to the poet (still in the first person here) posed by the goddess:

What (now again) I have suffered and why
(now again) I am calling out
and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart…

– Fragment #1
translation by Anne Carson

We of course don’t know Sappho’s real birthday.

I chose July 15 to celebrate her birthday because mid-July is (most likely)
when Sappho celebrated the Aphrodisia Festival to honor Aphrodite.

The Aphrodisia festival was held in Ancient Greek cities during the month of Hekatombaion,
starting (most likely) in the third week in July, and celebrated with pure fire, flowers, and incense.6

Happy 2660th Birthday
** Sappho **

– born 640 BCE
in Mytilene, Lesbos, Greece


Linger Awhile:

Roman Ruins in
Catania, Sicily

(photo by me)

I’ve been thinking this week about all the fragments that make up our lives.

for you beautiful ones my thought
is not changeable

– Fragment #41
translation by Anne Carson

Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho’s poetry is called If Not, Winter (2002).1 It uses an unusual technique. She added in brackets ] or [ to show where lines were broken by missing pieces in the papyrus. In her introduction, Carson says the brackets are “an aesthetic gesture” and even “exciting.” She tells us that there’s no reason we readers should miss “the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes…brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.”

There is something exciting about what’s missing—
trying to imagine what is in the space between the fragments.

To flip through these truncated texts
is a strangely moving experience…
The very incompleteness of the verses can
heighten the starkness of the emotions.

Daniel Mendelsohn 2
in a review of Anne Carson’s book

One of the things I love about reading ancient works like Sappho’s poetry is the long view of time. It somehow helps me both appreciate my days and feel motivated to fill them well.

I had a long phone conversation with a friend last night. It’s just a fragment of our selves that we’re able to share from this distance, but still it feels wonderful to get that glimpse into her life.

Another set of fragments I’ve been been thinking about is memory—and what a haphazard collection that is! Whenever I read through an old journal I’m surprised by many things. And I feel grateful to my past self for taking the time to write things down so I can relive those fragments of my past.

Like listening to a song in a language I don’t know, I’m struck by how much beauty and emotion comes through these different fragments in our lives.

stars around the beautiful moon
hide back their luminous form
whenever all full she shines
on the earth

– Fragment #34
(translation by Anne Carson)


“Half Cup More”

you gather back
all that dazzling dawn has put asunder:
you gather a lamb
gather a kid
gather a child to its mother

Fragment #104
translation by Anne Carson1

Greece was the first country I visited on my very first trip to Europe.

It was May 1989. Up to that point, I’d lived (almost) all my life in California: born, raised, went to college, got married, and then worked for 2½ years at a medical research lab in San Francisco. In February 1989, I moved to Michigan.

In April 1989, B and I started an 8-week adventure:
2 weeks on the East Coast of the U.S.
6 weeks in Western Europe.
(Both were foreign to me!)

Re-reading my travel diary now what strikes me is how different travel was then—
of course this was before computers, before cell phones…

Luggage = Camp Gear

May 1989

En route to Greece
** Sitting in the Rome airport waiting for our connecting flight to Athens. In Michigan time it’s about 3am right now. It doesn’t seem like it, though. I think the sunshine fools me. It looks like daytime so it feels like daytime.


** Greece feels very familiar. The plants and weather are so similar to California—which has a Mediterranean climate, after all.

Today we got quite a late start. (I think our jet lag is pretty much taken care of now). It was noon when we found (and enjoyed!) the vegetarian restaurant I’d read about in the guide book. After that nice meal as an intro to Athens, we spent the rest of the day trudging through overheated streets trying to find fuel for our camping stove. No luck. We ended up buying a new stove. Not as efficient to cook with as the old stove, but a least it allowed us to buy groceries for a hot dinner tonight and a great breakfast for tomorrow. We’ll keep looking for white gas.

Our campground is right on the water. It’s actually in Voula, which is a 20-kilometer bus ride from Athens. Tonight, after a late dinner, B and I strolled on the beach—admiring the quarter moon reflected in small, gentle waves in the Mediterranean, and trying not to get adopted by two stray dogs….


** We found out that the day spent looking for white gas was doubly wasted. Today we got some fuel that might have worked and found that a piece of our old stove was missing! B keeps saying, I’m so sorry that your first days in Europe are turning out like this… I don’t mind though.

The Jockey of Artemision
National Archaeological Museum,

Our second day started very lazily, very wonderfully. We went into Athens to see the National Archaeological Museum. The best were two bronze sculptures that were found in the sea in 1926. Poseidon ready to throw his three-prong spear (sans spear) and a horse racing with a child jockey. Both horse and child had wonderful facial expressions.

Sitting and resting in the National Gardens we were very surprised to see a tortoise amble by us, eating at the grass.


Tortoise just passing by
in the
National Gardens

By the time we got to the Acropolis it was almost closing,
so we had to look fast. (We still had to pay full price, though.)

B at the Acropolis

Wandering through the Plaka in the sunset hour,
B found a bookfair in the courtyard of the Zappeion. All in Greek. It was interesting, though.

En Route to Naxos
** Right now we’re on a ferry heading for the island of Naxos, one of the Cyclades. It’s a seven hour trip—we left at 5pm, and we’ll arrive around midnight. This was a surprise. I thought of this as a quick day-trip, maybe spending one night. B said he was glad that the island was so far away—maybe it will be less touristy.

The guide book says the Cyclades are
‘Greece as it’s supposed to be’—white houses, flowers, narrow streets, blue sea.
We’ll see.


** When we arrived here on the ferry it was after midnight. We had, in hand, directions to the campground. As we left the boat, we were approached by people hawking rooms. They said: 1700 drachma. We said: 1000 drachma. They left us alone. Then we heard someone calling: ‘Camping? Camping?’ We said yes—so we got a ride to the campground. Both B and I later admitted to being nervous about getting into a van with strangers who had nothing to show but a handmade ‘Naxos Camping’ sign and then heading off into the boonies with them. But it was legitimate. Now that I’ve been back and forth several times from the dock to the campground, I wonder if we’d ever have found it with those directions—especially at night!

That first night at the campground we popped up the tent in a space next to the light, then picked it up and moved it over to a spot that looked like it would have morning shade.

(The wash houses had a view.)

** This morning we woke to goats baaaaing. Two kids, it turns out, and a mom-goat. Around the campground there are also lots of lizards, jewel-green and quick.

We swam a little in the morning—but it was cold. Walked around and bought some cheese and bread for lunch. Took a nap under a beach umbrella. We swam again in the late afternoon and it was so much more comfortable—really pleasant.

Ano Sagkri

** Today we got up early, made french toast on the camping stove and caught (just barely) the 9:30am bus into the mountains.

The interior of the island has a lot of farming. It’s very pretty and much greener than the coast. We had the bus drop us off near a small village called Ano Sagkri. It was lovely. Narrow streets, white walls, windows and doors of red or bright blue or green. Flowers, especially geraniums, everywhere. It wasn’t touristy at all. No one spoke English, the one café was dark and full of men only. But the people we passed on the street all smiled and said ‘Kalimera’ to us.

A couple of old men and a woman sitting in the shade were able to get across that they wanted us to take their picture. (They couldn’t see that we had a camera but I guess it was obvious we had one.) The woman scooted out of the way just before B snapped the photo, so it’ll only be of the two men.

And yet, she is in the picture
(Just barely! See her, far right, carrying away her shopping?)

We hitchhiked into the next little town with a couple from Tel Aviv who had a rented (cramped) dune-buggy-looking car. Chalkio is surrounded by olive orchards. B and I walked into the trees along a sunken, walled goat path and sat to eat the lunch we’d brought.

A woman came by with a couple of goats while we ate our picnic. She took them down the path from us a ways to graze. Later when we tried to walk further that way we could quickly tell where the goats hadn’t been yet: Overgrown and scratchy!

A herder and her goats
outside Chalkio

We walked further into town. It was very hot and the worst part of the day so it was hard to move around too much. Chalkio is more adapted to tourists than Ano Sagkri is.

We sat in an outdoor cafe under this huge wonderful old tree, full of singing and fighting sparrows. The owner spoke English. It was pleasant to sit with our cold drinks.


We planned to hitchhike back to the campground but the bus came right away so we hopped on.

Took another swim in the Med and dinner at the little campground restaurant.

Aside from a slight heat-rash problem, I like this island life.

Athens (again)
** I really enjoyed the ferry ride from Naxos back to Athens yesterday afternoon. We saw dolphins jumping in the wake of the boat. Very exciting. I’d never seen dolphins before this. Once I saw a perfect tandem leap: Two dolphins jumped right out of the wake and arched back into the sea.

Late tomorrow evening we catch the train for Italy…


Take-Away Box

He seems to me equal to gods
that man whoever he is
who opposite you sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing—oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment,
no speaking is left in me.

tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass.
I am and dead—or almost
I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because
even a person of poverty…

Fragment #31
translation by Anne Carson


Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

You Can Read More…

notes & footnotes

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho
by Anne Carson (2002)
In the years after this book was published,
two new discoveries—one in 2004 and one in 2014—
have added to our knowledge of Sappho’s poetry.
To read more about those exciting developments,
see the links in notes 2 and 5 below.

Daniel Mendelsohn
“Girl, Interrupted: Who Was Sappho?”
The New Yorker
16 March 2015

“Beyond this is only speculation…”
And there’s been a lot of speculation
about Sappho’s life and loves.

Because fame is tricky.

Imagine combining all the gossip,
dumb jokes & caricatures, wild fans,
fame & blame, and double standards
generated over the past 50 years
about, say, Dolly Parton,
Princess Diana,
Hillary Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres,

and Taylor Swift…

I think that’d be a pretty good rough approximation
of what Sappho has gotten over the past 2500 years.

the Poetry Foundation

Guide to the classics: Sappho, a poet in fragments
February 12, 2018
by Marguerite Johnson
Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle

Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D
., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities,
John Murray, London, 1875.


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