article by Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
The moon and then
The night is now
goes; I am
in bed alone
When the Moon Casts a Woman Off
The muse is erotic. This is well known to the men who adore her. For me, her erotic nature can show up unexpectedly, as it did in India, or as it did during that powerful transition in a woman’s life—menopause.
When the moon has cast a woman off, and she is running hot and cold in a confusion of purposes, body and soul fighting over the terms of their engagement, she may find herself lost, wandering about in a flat landscape, emptied of the drama of her cycles, unfamiliar to herself. When her soul, having lived in all the female places, isn’t sure where she lives anymore; when her mind loses track of itself and falls through the cracks in the floor of her brain; when her spirit is short of breath, confused by the weather, by sudden surges of heat that lack any erotic purpose; and her womb that has been telling time, keeping her in tune with the sea and its tides, goes silent, keeping its secrets inside; she may find herself thrown back to what called her before her first blood flowered, as though soul, mind, spirit, need to root themselves again in her beginnings; her life needs to come full circle. For me, that circle brings me back to a reverie about my early sexual stirrings, and a fantasy about Sappho.
Sappho. Have you heard of Sappho? She lived 2600 years ago, in a time when the division between the erotic and the sacred had not yet hardened, when a young woman’s education included the arts of love as well as of poetry, dance and music. How is it she suddenly fills me with her presence, as though I’ve always known her; as though I can remember my time with her as a young woman on Lesbos: the temple to Aphrodite, the meadows with flowers we maidens wove into one another’s hair; what we sang around the altar in the moonlight; as though Sappho was my teacher, my priestess, my wild older woman crush.
How can I claim to remember Sappho? She is a revered ancestor in my poetic lineage. But all we have of her poems are fragments, all we can gather of her life are glimpses, pottery shards, passages in Longinus and Demetrius. Yet even those fragments, those glimpses, give us a lot. They say she is a great lyric poet, perhaps the greatest of all time. They say that she, like Socrates, taught the young. The aristocrats of 5th century B.C. Greece, sent their daughters to Sappho, to her thiasos, where she initiated them into the mysteries of love; taught them ritual, poetry, dance, officiated at their weddings.
The Greeks did not divide sexuality up as do we. Young women learned love, their bodily and emotional responses, from other women. Some of them went on to marry men and live what we call heterosexual lives. Others stayed in the temple, as priestesses. Some, it is clear from Sappho’s work, preferred to stay with women.
As Judy Grahn points out in a powerful evocation of Sappho in her book of essays, The Highest Apple, Sappho was born into a now lost lineage of women poets that stretched behind her for a thousand years.(2) She lived in changing times. Already by her time, Greek women were oppressed and controlled by the patriarchy; they could not own property; they belonged to their husbands. But on Lesbos, in Sappho’s thiasos, we catch a glimpse of a world where, in Grahn’s words “women were central to themselves.” I long to have access to such wholeness of female being, such authority of voice and image.
I took my lyre and said:
Come now, my heavenly
tortoise shell: become
a speaking instrument(3)
Would I could be such a speaking instrument. Would I could summon such elegance and clarity. In Sappho female flesh becomes word. Her poems are personal, embodied, full of desire and of sensuous physical detail: descriptions of beautiful clothes, advise on what flowers a girl should wear in her hair. They are luminous.
H.D. brought Sapphic lucidity back into the language, describes Sappho’s poetry as: “containing fire and light and warmth, yet in its essence differing from all these, as if the brittle crescent-moon gave heat to us, or some splendid scintillating star turned warm suddenly in our hand like a jewel, sent by the beloved.”(4)
I wish I could study poetry with Sappho; learn to speak from female passion as did Sappho; I wish I could be on as intimate terms with Aphrodite, know the altar, know the ritual.
You know the place: then
Leave Crete and come to us
waiting where the grove is
pleasantest, by precincts
sacred to you; incense
smokes on the altar, cold
streams murmur through the
apple branches, a young
rose thicket shades the ground
and quivering leaves pour
down deep sleep; in meadows
where horses have grown sleek
among spring flowers, dill
scents the air. Queen! Cyprian!
Fill our gold cups with love
stirred into clear nectar(5)
But wait a minute. Is this the time to be invoking Aphrodite? At midlife, dealing with hot flashes and memory loss, struggling to keep track of many obligations, is this the time of life for Sappho to be stirring in me? Sappho who loved young women, sang of their beauty, taught them the erotic mysteries? Where was she when I needed her, when I had never heard of her, when I was a young woman, overcome by a confusion of passions?
I came of age in a time when it was believed that young women should be sexually initiated by men. The ancient practice of a woman learning the responses of her body in the hands of an older woman, had been mostly forgotten. There was an archetype missing (still is, for the most part), one the Greeks knew well: the archetype of sacred sexuality. In my day, a young woman’s passion was dangerous; if she expressed it, terrible things could happen to her. There were names: clinical names, colloquial names. Nymphomaniac. Slut. There were dangerous consequences. Pregnancies. Illegal abortions. Doors slammed for life. Shutters closed on her sense of self.
In the 1960s, some of us got wind of Sappho’s energy, without really knowing much about her. We saw that women had to learn to love women instead of only valuing our relationships with men. We formed circles of women and talked personally, about sex, our bodies, our passionate lives. In such a group, “consciousness raising” we called it, I remember wondering what menopause would be like. We asked an older woman some of us knew to write a letter about her experience. I can’t remember what she said. I do remember her tone, wise, funny, amazed and pleased to be asked. If I were to write such a letter now I’d have to say that nothing has prepared me for the power of change. It’s archetypal, like going through puberty, or becoming a mother.
And then it occurs to me: no wonder I’m fantasizing about Sappho. It’s not just that she’s a priestess of Aphrodite; she’s a priestess who facilitates archetypal change, and she does it in the voice of a woman-centered woman. As Judy Grahn says, when we lose access to our ceremonial stories “we fall out of history . . . out of mythic time . . . out of poetry except as the objects of it . . . out of meaning into a kind of slavery, a no-world, a no-place . . . ” How then can we make sense of female initiation, profound bodily changes? We need Sappho. We need her to teach us the lore of the body, the creative process, the invocation of the divine.
And I say to myself, why not try to invoke Sappho? What would it hurt? At worst she won’t come. At best, we’ll have an experience of the imagination.
The Tenth Muse
Imagine that we knew Sappho when we were young. Imagine that we can remember the island in the middle of the blue Aegean, near Turkey as it was 2600 years ago, a landscape of olive trees and apple orchards. The scholar of Greek lyric poetry, C.M. Bowra, describes it thus: “an abundance of natural springs fills the valleys with plane trees and lush grass; in the spring the ground is covered with anemones, orchids and wild tulips.”(6) The poet Alcaeus, a contemporary of Sappho, describes her as: “violet-tressed, holy, sweetly smiling Sappho . . .” (7)
tell me, Sappho,
whose delicate fingers
wove the violets into your hair?
whose soft seashell ears burned
at your song?
and would you take her back
after the years
she forgot you
opened her body
to his song
would you come to the tip
of her tongue
to her image making
would you send for her
the very chariot
that carried the goddess
she of the doves
and the smile that is
lady of Lesbos
pieces of you
out of the mouths
of buried vases
i wish it were mine
how we danced
around the altar in full
our tender young women feet
crushing the grass
make a place for me now
the moon is waning
we whom the tides
long for a fragment
of you— (8)
She’s come. Can you see her? She is so vivid, as though she’s always been here, just under the surface, energetic, curious, intense, showing off her dark skin in bright clothing. She’s wearing the purple and yellow outfit she described in a poem. Listen to her beloved Atthis:
Sappho, if you will not get
up and let us look at you
I shall never love you again!
Get up, unleash your suppleness,
lift off your Chian nightdress
and, like a lily leaning into
a spring, bathe in the water.
Cleis is bringing your best
purple frock and the yellow
tunic down from the clothes chest;
you will have a cloak thrown over
you and flowers crowning your hair… (9)
She stands before a white temple, the blue Aegean glowing behind her. She’s smiling at us. Sappho, speak to us!
You wonder where I’ve been. I say, where have you been? I’ve been here all along, the old voice of female poetry, glad to be released at last from all those tiresome, bookish discussions about me. You’ve read all that nonsense. Was I short and dark? Did I die for love? Was I married to a man called Kerkylas, a wealthy merchant, or was this an obscene pun in an Attic comedy, because Kerkylas can mean “prick from the Isle of Man”(10) Was I a love priestess? Did I have jealous fights with my rivals for love or for power? Finally you stopped reading all that scholarship that just chops me up into smaller fragments, fits me into small categories that break up my wholeness. How can you separate body from love from soul from ritual from poetry? It is only in what’s left of my work that you can know me, and in the imagination of poets. There are those in your time who know me. H.D. knows me, as:
an island, a country, a continent, a planet, a world of emotion, differing entirely from any present day imaginable world of emotion…
A song, a spirit, a white star that moves across the heaven to mark the end of a world epoch or to presage some coming glory.
Yet she is embodied–terribly a human being, a woman, a personality as the most impersonal become when they confront their fellow beings.
Judy Grahn knows me, and traces her lesbian poetic lineage through H.D. and Emily Dickinson straight back to me. (11)
You can know me, not only as a particular poet of 6th c. B.C. Greece, but as the fragmented voice of woman, the ghost of the wholeness of woman that’s been ripped into shreds. What woman has written straight out of her body, her feeling, since I did, until now, in your time? My voice is the passion of woman for woman, the passion for the goddess. Every woman needs to know this passion, whether she sleeps with women or with men. Then she can express for herself what Freud found so mysterious: what a woman wants.
Why do you suppose you’ve been so consumed by poetry recently? It hasn’t occurred to you that I might have had something to do with that? For two millenia I was a sleepy spirit. But I’ve been right under the surface, waiting to be invoked. I have not been forgotten, but my poems, what has become of my poems? I wrote them down. I wanted them to last forever. It looked like they would. The Alexandrians published me a few centuries after my death. My work survived for a thousand years. I was known as the tenth muse, first among lyric poets, the queen of poetry. Once, everyone knew my poetry by heart. My words were ripe fruit on the tongue of every cultivated person. Now, all that’s left are fragments.
Don’t think because I’m a shade, I don’t mourn the loss of my work. Don’t think it doesn’t humiliate me, even in death, that my voice got torn to shreds of papyrus, that handwritten copies of my work were used to stuff a coffin, mummify a crocodile. Why did my books disappear? I have not been forgotten, but my poems are lost. I have not been forgotten, but for two thousand years who has written in my tradition? I have been quoted but the whole shape and luster of my work has been lost. Who has invoked me intimately, as I did Aphrodite, as you just did me? Why has it taken you so long? I’ve been knocking at the door of your consciousness most of your little life!
Dead poets long to be read. We long for our living audience, for the poets we influence, the poems that carry on our tradition, bring it into new territory. Suddenly your time is full of women poets, as though a fire swept through old woods releasing seeds that haven’t sprouted for 2600 years! You’re waking me up, exciting me, calling on me to return.
Now you want me to help you in this second rite of passage, in the Lesbos of your imagination. But I need your help. Events keep tearing you away from me. Important meetings. Conferences. Telephone calls. I say: come to Lesbos; make time for solitude; be alone with me. Imagine yourself in the grove of apple trees. The apples are reddening, growing ripe. The breeze in the trees has more to say to you than any group of colleagues. What do they know of your essence, your struggle to release your spirit from other people’s purposes? If I am to help you find the self you left behind, I need your full attention, your ear to my voice, your mind to the flow of images. Most of all I need your body!
You want my body?
No, I’m not propositioning you, not in the usual sense. I’m a ghost, a spirit. What I want is words for your body’s experience, your desire, your longing. When young women came to me on Lesbos I prepared them for the changing of the gods in their bodies. I called down Aphrodite. I taught them the pleasure of their bodies, what flowers to wear in their hair, what would make the blood run hot under their soft skin. Here they were, young and so lovely, breasts just blossoming. How could I not fall in love? I who was teaching them to cultivate the goddess of love, to make her incarnate in their own flesh, was cultivating my own body of love.
I brought girls from childhood to womanhood, teaching them to sing and to dance, to cultivate the subtle play of blood and fire in their loins, the connection to their feet, to know what colors to wear, how a dress should drape.
If I had known you when you were young, you would have known your own beauty. You would have learned to express your own passion, in words. No matter how overcome with passion a woman may be, if she can make a poem of her experience—she retains herself—has made a vessel for herself. I did this time and again.
He is a god in my eyes
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you—he
who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing
laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast… (12)
Can you imagine how it is to love a young woman, train her in the erotic arts, and then have to officiate at her marriage? Making poems held me together, as making poems has been holding you together in the change of life. What you need is some of our ancient Greek love for our bodies. We did not suffer from that post Christian fear of the body which has caused the fragmentation of my voice. Nor had we any desire to “rise above” our bodies. We knew what you need to remember: the body is where the gods speak to us. Your body is speaking to you, in hot flashes, in memory lapses, in a deep disorientation from the moon. You need me to help you in this change of the gods. I need you to give poetic voice to the change.
There is something I don’t understand. Do you not know about the change? Didn’t women of your time live past menopause?
Of course. Women have always known about menopause. In the ancient world we had our secret rituals, we knew the herbal remedies, all the lore of the wise blood. But none of this was valued, or written down. And as the men took over, and women’s spiritual practices were deemed dangerous, witchcraft, you forgot what we once knew. It got lost, like the poems of the poets before me, lost like the mysteries of Eleusis, like the many forms of the goddess.
The previous article is an excerpt from
The Sister From Below: When the Muse Gets Her Way
by Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
Naomi Lowinsky is the author of The Sister From Below: When the Muse Gets Her Way, The Motherline: Every Woman's Journey to Find Her Female Roots, and the just published book of poems, Adagio and Lamentation. She has authored numerous prose essays, many of which have been published in Psychological Perspectives and The Jung Journal. Her two previous poetry collections, red clay is talking (2000) and crimes of the dreamer (2005) were published by Scarlet Tanager Books. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize three times and is the recent recipient of the Obama Millennium Poetry awarded for "Madelyn Dunham, Passing On.” Naomi is a Jungian analyst in private practice, poetry and fiction editor of Psychological Perspectives.
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(1) Sappho, Barnard trans., fragment #64.
(2) Judy Grahn, The Highest Apple : Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition, p. 7.
(3) Sappho, fragment #8.
(4) Hilda.Doolittle. (H.D.), Notes on Thought and Vision and The Wise Sappho, pp. 57-58.
(5) Sappho, fragment #37.
(6) C.M. Bowra, Greek Lyric Poetry, p. 130.
(7) Alcaeus, Greek Lyric Poetry, p. 239.
(8) Lowinsky, unpublished poem.
(9) Sappho, fragment #43.
(10) Sappho, The Poems and Fragments of Sappho, translated by Jim Powell, p. 33.
(11) H.D., The Wise Sappho, pp. 58-59.
(12) Sappho, fragment #39.
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