Oh Gongula, I have the snippets of my yearnings
a whole eternity and thousand hour-long journeys
from sunken cheeks that emanate the scent of grass,
your high-pitched laughter, fragile as is new-blown glass,
the artless grace of your two lotus eyes so massive
and fluttering smooth gait, your poignantly impassive
existence on a day drenched by the sun once more,
which your unfolding, you and you alone then saw,
and from the transience of all your words so chilling
which on the seven lyre strings through the song went drilling,
now re-discovered in the hope-destroying sand
of a quite empty, sun-scorched and unlikely land
and excavated with chilled instruments, unfolding
with nails that hoped for you. And I now stand here holding
the crumbling fragments of your skin and memory
in hands that are too large by far and loss is free
to gnaw at edges of the lightly, palely written
papyrus. The sole remnant of your song unbitten,
is, bar your name, a fist of stuttering great woe
in partial interrupted statements: ‘Grave.’ ‘Oh no.’
‘The most.’ ‘Because unhappy.’ ‘Said I.’ ‘A quite blinding
insistent wish to die, a pathway to be finding
to dew-encrusted banks down by the Acheron.’
Before the song began your life perhaps was gone.
Oh Gongula, the flakes of broken sighs once uttered
about the voices of blue butterflies that fluttered
in Lesbos’ young spring skies, when every wind was blond
still as the song, and then your peplos, caught by song,
just danced, as did the wind, round you, round every gesture
your Alma Tadema-like staring in this vesture
as, ’gainst a column, you leant like a statue there
of tantalising bronze that twirls a lock of hair,
as if for history you simply stood there waiting
and sombre, ancient Grecian thoughts were contemplating,
I now hold in my clumsy hands in the large hall
of Berlin’s institute and would need to know all
the language of dry forms to read you through their phrasing.
And of your being, which folk painfully were praising
which bore your name ere you were mourned there’s but your name,
that’s catalogued and skilfully transcribed, the same
reposes in card-index boxes and editions.
You’re fleshed out with the aid of metrical positions.
Your filing card says restoration’s overdue.
Oh Gongula, your name echoes the loss of you.
The greatest ever poet came to your assistance.
In Sappho’s song your life has gained a new existence
So after Sappho’s death you were by no means dead.
It can well be a seaman’s lips your name have said
or murmured, sailing all the way from Mytilene
to Corinth or Priene, somewhere in Cyrene
at some small feast perhaps they sang about your fame
or on Aegina once some fisher hummed your name.
But time can even so erase immortal verses,
for what takes place, takes place: and each event coerces.
A man called Caesar set the city all alight
and old papyri gave the fire yet greater might
with everything consumed by flames, as too the yearning
of Sappho and myself for cheeks no more returning
and naked feet that walked on marble, cool as snow.
And many centuries past your one long ago
you died a second time for good – the fragments lying
in my two hands can only emphasise your dying
because they form a constant memory that you
have been forgotten. But I know I’ve known you too,
oh Gongula. I hear the echo of your shadow
and see that you beget the spring just like a swallow.
So I tear up this verse that time will now reclaim
and hope that what perhaps survives contains your name.