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Channeling Sappho By Bill Donahue Calligraphy by Carol Erickson DuBosch
In truth, Sappho never said anything about the goat being fat, or about thigh-bones. But in Barnard’s almost filmic version we can see the meat crisping and sizzling, and the word “altar”—not in the Greek, either—gives the whole tableaux a shimmering holiness, without being highfalutin. Surely, as she lay there, devising her clear, concrete imagery, Barnard was thinking of Pound munching his toasts.
And maybe she thought of Sappho as a friend, too, for the ancient poet—despite all her modern guises (Super Dyke, Porn Queen)—shared much with the odd bird laid low in Vancouver. On the page, Sappho does not present as a brazen Amazon ringleader, but rather as an outsider, a sensitive artiste so astonished by the hurt of life that when she speaks of a girl losing her virginity it is:
like a hyacinth in
“There’s a sense of loss about Sappho,” says Sheehy, now a San Francisco-based writer and editor. “She wrote so much great poetry, but then it just disappeared. And there was something tragic going on in Mary’s life, too. She’d had all this promise and now there she was, in her forties, sick and living with her parents.”
How did Barnard contend, artistically speaking, with the drab misery of it all? It seems almost certain that she’d read Eliot’s manifesto, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”—and that she heard its call for “concentration.” Eliot wrote that poetry is a “concentration of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all.” And in a 1989 letter to a graduate student, Angela Christy, Barnard hints at how she concentrated her bedridden interlude into poetry. The letter discusses this Sappho fragment, as translated by Barnard:
Christy has just written a thesis speculating that Sappho was thinking of dripping stalagmites. Barnard corrects her. “I’m sure that she did not have stalagmites in mind,” she writes, “nor did I. I thought of a faucet dripping—in the next room, say—then of a heartbeat, then of the pulse, then of throbbing pain. The comparison is not with a hard stone pointed object, but with rhythmic liquid movement, inside the body. The Village Voice published a long poem by Joel Oppenheimer at the time of his death. In it he described what it felt like to be eaten by cancer and treated by chemotherapy, and in the midst of it he quoted those six words of my translation. I’m sure he understood it exactly the way I meant it.”
In her memoir, Barnard says she likely couldn’t have translated Sappho had she been leading an active life: “I would never have had the patience to work so long over each fragment.” She also speaks fondly of the house in Vancouver where she grew up and did her translation, extolling its large porch and the cleared back yard running down to nearby railroad tracks.
The place is still there, in a quiet, leafy neighborhood just off Main Street. It’s just a few miles from my home in Portland, so recently, on a spring afternoon, I pedaled my bicycle over the bridge and rolled up to the lawn.
The Barnard house was grayish blue, the paint flecked, and the roof rotting and speckled with moss. Inside, a large dog was barking at a plasma TV sitting amid a cluster of cardboard moving boxes still unopened by the new owners. I knocked. A young woman came to the door, and then I stood on the porch explaining my mission.
The woman looked at me, skeptically. “Are you a Reedie?” she asked.
In time, she warmed up. She offered to let me come back and tour the place once her husband got home, and for a while I did plan on returning for Mary Barnard instilled a certain sadness in me. Just like Sappho, she’d almost vanished. She’d left behind no heirs, and although she did write a memoir, it was close to the vest. I wanted some tangible hint of her life: I wanted to touch the walls that she touched. I wanted a bead on the story of her life in that house.
But soon, as I kept reading the poems, that urge for facts faded—and felt rather silly: A New Translation is, really, all about imagination. Sappho, working when literature was a new medium, imagined a fresh way to tell the truth, and Mary Barnard, lying on her back, stared up at the ceiling over her sickbed. She imagined the evening star, and she made it the most beautiful of all the stars.
Portland writer Bill Donahue has contributed to the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and the Washington Post Magazine. His website is at billdonahue.net.
Mary’s legacy lives on through the Mary Barnard Academy of American Poets contest. Funded by the English department, the contest annually awards a $100 prize—and great timê—to the best poem, or group of poems, submitted by a Reed student.
The competition operates as a part of the University and College Poetry Prize program, which bestows over 200 prizes upon undergraduate poets nationwide. Winners are announced in the Academy’s annual report—the site of many a great author’s first published recognition.
A talented succession of writers has been brought to the public eye since Reed first participated in the contest. English major Jennifer Burris ’10 took home the 2009 prize with her poems “Heifer” and “Laura.” Honorable mentions also went to Erik Erkkila ’11 for “Inheritance” and “For a Dead Hunter” and to Margaret Booth ’09 for “Sharp” and “Farewell.”
Mary generously gave the Reed library her papers, including manuscript drafts of her poetry, correspondence with poets such as Ezra Pound, and other ephemera. She also established a scholarship for financially challenged juniors and seniors in the humanities and interdisciplinary studies; in addition to the scholarship, recipients receive a copy of her collected poems.
— Lucy Bellwood ’12
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