Reed Books: If Not, Winter

Jess Reed, Editor

Sappho is one of the most famous poets from the ancient world, and one of the only women of that group. Tragically, most of her work has been lost to time, either never fully transcribed, or damaged by the thousands of years between her life and ours. In If Not, Winter, translator Anne Carson emphasizes the beauty and importance of form, not only content, in a literary work.

What’s notable about this particular collection of Sappho’s poetry is the emphasis not only on the presence of her work, but also on the absence of it. Whether destroyed on purpose, by time, or by human error, many of Sappho’s poems are only a few words long. For example, one simply reads, “reproach/delicate/Artemis”; another, “as long as you want”. The challenge comes in determining Sappho’s intent in each poem; was she simply concise, or is there more, lost forever? Carson makes these decisions artistically and with accessibility, finding a tangible way to show the reader something intangible. Through the use of brackets, line breaks, and page formatting, Carson is able to differentiate between intended absence and unintended absence. On page 177 of the collection, a poem reads, “]bitter/]/]and know this/]whatever you/]I shall love/]/]for/]of weapons/]”. Instead of a pile of random words, the reader can observe that there are missing lines between certain words, and even a missing line at the very end. While nobody, even Carson, knows what these lost lines are, their existence is not overlooked. 

It’s obvious that communication with the reader is important to Carson’s translation, and she enhances this collection with her introduction, giving her thoughts on Sappho, on the text, and on marks and lacks. Speaking directly to the reader, Carson remarks, “When translating texts read from papyri, I have used a single square bracket to give an impression of missing matter… Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it… I emphasize the distinction between brackets and no brackets because it will affect your reading experience, if you allow it” (xi). The simple action of including the reader in her “behind the scenes” work makes all the difference in reading the actual poetry, and is in itself an honor to the concept of poetry; the freedom to interpret and apply individually. 

In If Not, Winter, Anne Carson demonstrates the importance of communication with an audience, and how to properly honor an art form, in both its presence and its absence.