Thursday, July 02, 2009

Sappho Sings

Sappho Sings
by Peggy Ullman Bell

(CreateSpace / 1-438-21431-6 / 978-1-438-21431-3 / May 2008 / 350 pages / $15.95 / Kindle $3.99)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

Out of a mere handful of facts known about the life of a lyric poet so famous in her lifetime (or shortly after it) that she was known as the 10th Muse, and from the bare thousand or so lines left to us out of nine volumes of collected works, Peggy Ullman Bell has distilled an appropriately lyrical novel of the life of the woman known as The Poetess (as Homer was known simply as The Poet).

Like certain modern celebrities, Sappho has barely the single title and name: her writing was vivid, deeply personal – and beloved universally, seemingly acknowledged in her lifetime as a woman possessed of an incredible gift for language and music … or at least, when the universe seemed to encompass those Greek city states of the 6th century BC. She was of a wealthy and prominent family on her home island of Lesbos, she had three brothers, was sent into exile by a political enemy, married a rich merchant of Syracuse, had a daughter and was either a priestess of a cult ministering to women, or ran a finishing-school for upper-crust girls – possibly both – and may have indeed been small, dark and unbeautiful. She seems to have thought of herself as that, although that may be the poet’s elevated sense of self-drama and cultivated insecurity speaking out. Perhaps she preferred women as lovers; later Christian ecclesiastics certainly thought so, which may be why no great effort was undertaken to preserve her works. And she may have died, after a long, and eventful life, from falling off a cliff. Out of those sparse threads, the author has woven a brightly colored, and intensely-felt silken web of a tale, bejeweled with description and trimmed with poetical lace.

With a great deal of care, the author has reconstructed that world of Classical Greece: cultured, intellectual and wealthy, a world where skill in rhetoric and music was as valued as skill in war and in mercantile pursuits, where the gods were always just out of sight in the waves of a stormy sea or speaking through the mouths of oracles, and their deeds having left a print on the world around, a world familiar to us in some sense, and yet not. The language is archaic, yet not enough to seem unwieldy or inaccessible, in writing conversation. It is very clear in some respects that the author has not fallen into the sin of “presentism” – that is, presenting a modern world, with characters and concepts just a little dressed up in period garb and accessories. Sappho and her friends, her protectors and fellow poets, her family and her lovers are all vividly from a different world, and the details and the visual sense (as well as auditory and olfactory sense) are detailed, vivid and ultimately convincing. Sappho Sings is well worth the read, a little rich for reading all at once, as a box of very expensive chocolate would be, but a lovely treat for now and again, just for the beauty of description.

See Also: Peggy Ullman Bell's Website
Dianne Salerni's Review of Fixin' Things
Peggy Ullman Bell's Authors Den Page
Celia's BNN review

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