"Whoever he is"

Anne Carson

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

no: 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 be.

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

Fragment 31
Sappho; translation by Anne Carson
from If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (Vintage, 2003)

Scholars know this poem of Sappho's as Fragment 31. When Sappho had already been dead for centuries, Catullus adopted it in Latin (Poem 51 in his collected works), and his poem, like hers, circulated throughout the Mediterranean world.

Many writers have tried their hand at bringing this into English, but none has succeeded like Anne Carson, and she did it by cleaving closely to Sappho's original. In particular, by refusing to add possessive pronouns where Sappho has none, she recreates the swift immediacy of the lines in Greek.

Carson lets us hear Sappho's urgent, graceful voice, and the millennia between us and the poet of Lesbos drop like mist.

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