I first became acquainted with Mary Barnard's writing while living on Lesbos, one of the far-eastern Greek islands strewn along the Turkish coast. I was summering there, in the small coastal village of Molivos, at the end of a two-year grand tour of sorts before entering college. I passed my days on the beach reading and debating the works of the ancient Greeks with some of their present-day descendants_ most of them young Greek fishermen and sailors on summer sojourn. In the evenings, we headed up to the village caf‚s for drinking, dancing, and impromptu poetry readings.
One of those nights in the caf‚s, a woman stood up and read some lyrical poems of Sappho, a sixth-century Lesbian poet, from a little book of English translations. They were short poems_only fragments of Sappho's verse have survived the ages_but they spoke with a simple directness sparked with flashes of elemental emotion. Recited together, the poems created a vivid picture of life among Sappho and her friends on Lesbos 2,500 years earlier. I was hooked. For weeks after leaving the island, I scoured bookstores on the continent until I found a copy of that little book of Sappho's poems translated by Mary Barnard.
Several years later, in my junior term at Reed, I again encountered the work of Mary Barnard while working on Reed's literary magazine, Exile, in the shop of master printer John Laursen '67 of Press-22. There I spotted a book of her collected poems that Laursen had recently designed and printed. Learning that she was a Reed alumna and that she lived across the Columbia River in her native Vancouver, Washington, I wrote to her, asking if she would contribute a poem to a special alumni edition of Exile. She wrote back, graciously inviting me over for tea.
Lacking a car, I rode the bus to Vancouver, where Mary picked me up and drove me to her condominium overlooking the Columbia River. Her apartment was a world away from the disheveled Reed house I occupied at the time. Looking over her small but selective library, I felt as though I had walked into a literary salon.