Creative Non-Fiction || Read a brief interview with the author here
In poem 16 of her surviving 650 fragments, Sappho writes, “Some say an army of horsemen, others a host of infantry,/ others a fleet of ships is the most beautiful thing/ on this black earth. But I say/ it’s whatever you love.”
These lines have lain on my coffee table for weeks now, remnants of an earlier attempt to prepare for the upcoming semester. I teach a course on ancient epics and power structures. In this class, we will spend most of our time on Homer; we will discuss what it means to be a hero, why journeys are so important to the fabric of narrative, but we will also discuss things like “otherness” and “murder”. What I should be doing is rereading the Iliad and the Odyssey. I should be preparing lectures on the suitors, whose dead bodies are piled up like fish, and the slave girls, who are hanged like birds—executed by Odysseus’ son for the crime of their own rapes. The truth is, I am thinking about all these things. I’m thinking about Homer’s women, both the ones who survive and the ones who don’t. I’m thinking about Penelope, about Cassandra, about Helen. Helen most of all–her abduction, her desire. But these women are not alive on the pages of the Homeric epics I haven’t touched. Instead, they shift and crawl through the fragments of Sappho’s poetry. They weave between her words and my mind as I read her 650 fragments over and over. Sappho writes about the same characters. She writes of Helen and of Paris, of Troy and the gods. She writes about sex and death, desire and destruction. Sappho calls it Love. The French have a sense of this; the expression for orgasm in French is la petite mort, the little death. A moment of loss mixed with a moment of taking, of giving, of filling.
Sappho knows this; Fragment 16 doesn’t begin with what you love. It begins with an army, with infantry, with a fleet of ships. It begins with agents of destruction. And this beginning is a rope that tethers love to violence.
I reread all nine lines of Fragment 16 every day. It’s become a ritual. I think about them when I am doing other things: grading, teaching, talking to friends, walking my dog. When I am running, they move through my head like the news scroll at the bottom of the TV. Recently, a friend picked up the book and read the poem out loud to me. I took it out of his hands, blushing; his voice putting sound to my thoughts embarrassed me.
But then I could think of nothing else.
My friend and I spoke for a long time. Not about Sappho, but about other things. We spoke about a marathon he had just run, guiding an amputee runner. I asked about the prosthetic limbs, how they worked, what they did to the rhythm of the run. I run obsessively, almost every day, yet I know next to nothing beyond my own stride. I was curious. I wanted to know about the mechanics, how one can improve or train with a limb that never changes, that cannot feel the pain. He explained, talked about the structures of the limbs, how they work, the process of running and running with only half of you on the ground.
Running is hard on the body. It takes out the knees, the hips, the ankles. It stresses the muscles, can cause the blood vessels to break, exhausts the lungs. If you run enough and in every form of weather, your skin will show it: wrinkles from the cold air hitting you, the sun beating down on you. Just yesterday, I had to pull over on the side of the track because of a pain in my lower back and hips, leaning on my right leg because of the injury to my left.
“These athletes will never have the perfect stride. They will always run with a limp, which puts more stress on the back, the hips, everything,” my friend told me. “They know they are destroying their bodies, or what’s left of their bodies. But they’re so positive. I guess if you love something, you just keep doing it.”
Whatever you love. There they were, those lines, filling up the space between us. I sat silent, imagining a body without, continuing without. Without skin, and then without muscle, and then without a bone. How we continually chip away at ourselves one piece at a time. That was the end of the conversation. Eventually, my friend closed the space between us, the lines of the poem falling to the ground, his mouth on mine; but the image of the body remained, each piece marked for execution.
You do what you love. Or rather, you do what you have to do for love.
“It’s perfectly easy to make this clear / to everyone,” Sappho continues. “For she who surpassed all in beauty–Helen–left behind/ her most noble husband/ and went sailing off to Troy.” In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Callasso tells us that the Ancient Greek word phtheírein means ‘to seduce’ but also ‘to destroy’. The relationship between desire and destruction is in the word itself. To say it is to admit it. Language functions as the action. Helen running after Paris is all in a word, and the word—the action—is both the opening and the unraveling. They know they are destroying their bodies.
There are bruises all over my body. There is one on my right shoulder, another just below my left knee, one on my tailbone. Last night, half asleep, I rolled over and felt the pain of pressure against purpled skin. This is how I discovered the bruises. In the morning, I examined my body in the mirror. I traced the blood underneath the skin with my fingers, amazed at how thin everything had become, how easy it is to hurt. Then I went for a run.
I know where the bruises came from. I can close my eyes and see perfectly the movement of our bodies. The wall, the end of the sofa, later the bed. Teeth. Fingers. One image: his fingers on my stomach, all five tips pressed into my skin, sliding down my rib cage as it narrows into my waist. “Take off your jeans,” he said, a man who doesn’t love me. Such a simple command. I did as he asked. Afterwards, he always apologizes, though I am never sure what he is apologizing for. So often I want the conversation to be about something other than sex. But it’s always there. In the morning, there are always the marks left over to remind me of what I have allowed to be taken. There are always the bones—run down, until there are no bones, no muscles, no veins. Until there is nothing.
Nothing is left of Troy. Greeks and Trojans, a city, a people—all dead. Hector kills Achilles’ great love Patroclus, and so is killed by Achilles; Achilles is killed by Paris; Paris killed by Philoctetes. Helen returned. Her one act of agency, her one act of love, lost. There are so many ways to tell that story. In all of them, Helen loses.
But is it love that Helen loses?
Plato’s Socrates says Love is a philosopher, always searching for wisdom, which is the greatest beauty. I like this idea. Searching seems a nobler form of running: a journey somewhere, or as Socrates would argue, a journey towards the “single science…of beauty everywhere.”
What a wonderful thought. I cannot say it is untrue. I, too, think beauty is everywhere. But that does not stop me from thinking that ugliness is also everywhere. I witness this every morning on my way to work. Decaying buildings, rust, broken things left in the street, deconstruction lit up by the morning sun. Is there not something lovely about erosion?
And love is ugly. Even in its most intimate and carnal form. You have to be willing to be disgusting to let someone close. You have to be as gross as you are beautiful for it to mean anything in the moment. I wonder sometimes if what we desire is not sex but the moment after sex. What we want is not the act itself, but the fact that we are brave enough to give over to someone else—ugly enough to lose ourselves, and survive. We love our own survival.
But Sappho writes about the moment before it’s over. All we have left of Fragment 130 are two lines: “Once again limb-loosened Love makes me tremble,/ that bittersweet, irresistible creature.” Anne Carson translates the line differently. She has it, “Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me/ sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up.” In her essay, Bittersweet, she examines the difficulty of these lines. “It is hard to translate,” she writes, ‘Sweetbitter’ sounds wrong, and yet our standard English rendering ‘bittersweet’ inverts the actual terms of Sappho’s compound glukupikron.” It would make sense that her ordering has descriptive intention. First Eros brings sweetness, then bitterness. If this is the case, then is Sappho not documenting the chronological experience of a failed affair? Carson says no. She argues that the “poem begins with a dramatic localization of the erotic situation in time (deute) and fixes the erotic action in the present indicative tense (donei). Sheis not recording…history…but the instant of desire.” It is one and then it is the other. In the moment, there are only seconds in between the pulse of pain and the pulse of pleasure. Or perhaps it is the pleasure and then pain.
I have been in a twist of limbs. I have felt my body give way. I have felt my whole being tremble in the embrace of another. I have felt lost against the heat of someone else’s skin. I have felt the need to collect myself piece by piece. But Sappho is right about it all. It is not simply sweet. It is bitter and sweet. It is sweet and then it is bitter. And it is violent. Even when it’s sweet. To open up, to let in, to enter, to push against, to fill up and then split apart. To say “yes,” to say, “now”, to say “give me everything,” to say, “make me come,” are all small declarations of war. In lines 6 through 12 of Fragment 31 she writes, “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 my ears.”
Winter is a mountain cut in half. The first half climbs towards the darkness, the days moving shorter and shorter, the sun always disappearing before we are ready. But the hour before the darkness is a golden hour. This is my favorite time to run. If I leave my apartment around 3:45, I’m bound to hit the reservoir just as the sun has turned pink and lingers over the edges of the tallest buildings surrounding Central Park. Sometimes I run around the reservoir over and over. The other day, I watched all the seagulls form one straight line between the two stone buildings on either side of the water. Sometimes, I don’t even want to run. I just want to leap into the water. I want to dive deep into the blue. Sometimes I just want to take my hands and hold on between two seagulls.
Eventually, I break off. I turn down a dirt path that moves north and eventually east. I try to wind through the woods. I look for stairs or hills that I can sprint up. I want this to be about searching. I want to forget why I’m running. I want to be the woman I passed the other day who was looking down at the ground with such intent, staring at the reddest leaves that have ever existed. I wanted to stop and stand there with her. I wanted to tell her that I could see them, too. But I just kept running.
I suppose one can be running away from something just as much as one can be running towards something. It is unclear how much choice Helen has in the Iliad. The war has already begun when we enter the poem. The myths are conflicting. In the Odyssey, after Helen is returned, she claims she never wanted to go in the first place. But this, too, is suspect. How could she tell Telemachus, son of Odysseus who has been missing since the end of the war, since all of that death and destruction, how can she say she had chosen to leave? How can she talk about the running? It’s the running, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if she was running to Paris or away from Menelaus. It’s the fact that she ran in the first place. It’s the running that broke everything. I imagine Helen sprinting. I imagine her fashioning her legs to work, even when they don’t work. I imagine her muscles ripping, her bones breaking, everything whittling away. I imagine her made of metal. She knows she’s destroying her body. Still, she goes.
“And cold sweat holds me shaking” Sappho writes in the last complete stanza of Fragment 31, “grips me all/ greener than grass/ I am dead–or almost/ I seem to me.” I think of Helen in Menelaus’ dining hall twenty years after the fall of Troy and Paris’ death. I think of her standing in front of her husband, compelled to tell the story of Odysseus sneaking into Troy and slaughtering the Trojans. “The Trojan women keened in grief,” she says, “but I/ was glad–by then I wanted to go home.” She blames Aphrodite, claims the goddess “made her go crazy,” and lured her to Troy. This seems like a possibility. But the Odyssey is about lies. Odysseus lies when he is physically vulnerable against his enemies, Penelope lies to keep the suitors at bay. Why should Helen not also lie? Perhaps everything since Troy has been a lie. “My dear husband,” she calls Menelaus. Why should that not be a lie? Paris’ name whispered in the back of her mind. Paris. And death. And for her, a kind of death. “I am dead–or almost/ I seem to me.”
We don’t have the final stanza of Fragment 31. It has either been lost or Sappho never finished it. But it begins, “But all is to be dared.” How magnificent is the incompleteness of this poem, or of all of Sappho’s poems? Most of the loss is because of time, because of the faded quality of age. Incompleteness of a body of work is both beautiful and ugly; it is the lovely erosion, a fullness of a kind, an imagined way of being. The fragments become whole in the space left behind, in the areas of silence we dare to breathe into.
To dare. To keep going even though the body ends up in pieces. There, again, is a runner without. The body towards something, or away from something. The aches ignored, the pain used to push further. The incomplete poem. Plato claims that we will cut off our own limbs if we deem them corrupted. That is how badly we wish for the good; if we perceive our own limbs as bad, we will remove them. The argument is valid. But I wonder if we cut things off not because we seek the good but because we are afraid. And perhaps we give over to certain kinds of love not because we wholly love but because we are afraid of the alternative: a life without. But a life with or without—a life whole is a subjective idea. There is no physical manifestation of wholeness. A runner with one leg is still a runner. A fragment is still a statement, a moment of beauty impregnated with silence. Silence, lack, absence, those are all alive—bones, muscles, veins. To be whole, then, means to have dared. Or at least I hope this is true.
The other morning, as I was crossing the Ward Island Bridge, I tried to empty my head. The run did not feel very good. My pace was slow and I was deeply tired. But still I pushed on. With each mile, my time sped up. I felt looser and was able to better control my breathing, but I still yearned for the run to be over. As I moved up the incline of the bridge, I could see the sun sparkling over the Harlem River. I watched a seagull fly overhead. You just want me because I let you use me, I suddenly thought to myself. It felt abrasive, this unexpected sentence slipping into my mind. I breathed deep as I reached the downward turn of the bridge. My lungs felt heavy. I thought of the man who doesn’t love me. I thought of how he uses my body. I thought of how I let him. I thought of my body. Limb-loosened Love. In Carson’s translation, love is not simply “irresistible” but “impossible to fight off.” It is a battle you cannot win; what does it mean to win? I think back to our bodies, mine and the man who doesn’t love me. I think of our limbs loosening each other’s only so that we can tighten ourselves around the whole. The opening and the unraveling: phtheírein.
There is nothing romantic about what I am doing. There is nothing beautiful about looking for the pain. I just want to know the origin. What makes me say “yes,” “now,” “always”? What makes me run until it hurts, and then continue? I don’t think I’m looking for the good. I think I’m looking for something very different: the tether between love and violence, my hands holding onto the seagulls in the reservoir, surrounded by the water, the bones whittled away, the gaps in the body, a life full even if it means also without all the pieces. But all is to be dared. Helen was right to run. The loss is worth the middle part, the center of the tether, the peak of the run, when your body gives way to inertia, the moment when everything is wrapped tight, held close, full, beyond thought, just heart and skin and breathing. Just a brief moment.
My stomach tightened into a cramp and I pressed my fingers, all five, into my rib cage as I ran. The bones and muscles breathed back against the pressure. When I hit mile 10, I stopped. I moved to the fence separating the greenway from the river. The sun was still dancing across the water, lighting everything up. I thought about the water moving. How the mouth of the river opens up near lower Manhattan, the water flowing into the Sound and then into the Atlantic. Everything moving away. Running away. I wonder what the water loves.
Jessica Denzer is a writer and educator. She received her B.A. in English Literature from Fordham University and her M.F.A. in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She is a researcher in residence at the New York Public Library and writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Number Magazine, the Unpublishable Anthology, West Trade Review, and she is a contributing editor and writer for Four Way Review. She lives in New York, NY.
Read a conversation between Jessica and Editor D. W. White about her creative process and the genesis of but all is to be dared here.