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Sappho Sings Paperback – May 16, 2008
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From the Author
Although long dead, Psappha, as Sappho called herself in her own soft Aeolian dialect is and has been the love of my life for over 40 years. In my heart and mind she lives, loves and laughs.
About the Author
Peggy Ullman Bell wrote the first polished draft of SAPPHO SINGS during her senior year at the University of Tulsa, Class of '77, where she was founding president of the Oklahoma Delta Chapter of Pi Gamma Mu. When asked why it took so long to get from first draft to publication, Ms. Bell smiled and said, "It takes a long time for an ancient culture to become a worthy tourist attraction." Currently a widow, Ms. Bell resides in Delaware, Ohio. "But, I live in cyberspace." she explains in sultry southern tones. http://peggyullmanbell.com
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Sappho ~ or Psappha, as she would have been known in her native Aeolian dialect ~ first felt the arrow of Eros as a young woman, looking at the lithe, golden-haired dancer Atthis. Betrothed, she wondered if she could ever feel the same way about her intended, and fellow poet, Alkaios. A storm at sea separates Psappha and Alkaios, though this tragedy leads her to an unexpected marriage, a beloved daughter ... and the love of her life. Although she takes both female and male lovers, Psappha's soul mate is the lovely African warrior-woman Gongyla. When Atthis dances back into her life, Psappha is left with a heart-rending choice to make.
Sappho Sings is an excellent and bittersweet love story. Fans of Margaret Doody's "Aristotle Detective" series will appreciate Ullman Bell's blend of ancient Greek history, thrilling story, and biting wit. Ullman Bell skillfully weaves bits of the surviving fragments of Sappho's poetry into her narrative, too.
One warning, though: reading Sappho Sings will send you scurrying to the bookstore for Sappho's poems.
Will Durant in his "Life of Greece" is quoted as saying that Sappho "called herself Psappha, in her soft Aeolian accent" and Psappha is the name by which she is known through this wondrous novel. Because the title uses the more familiar name, that is the name I shall use.
Many people have heard the name of Sappho but not many know who she was, what she did, or what she was famous for. There is, however, a sadly amusing idea in certain quarters that Sappho was "the founder of Lesbians," to quote someone of my acquaintance. (I didn't know Lesbians were "founded" but I guess that's a different issue.) At any rate, she is associated in modern thought with Lesbians (in the sexual sense, that is, not as in "citizens of Lesbos") and nothing else. Many people don't even know that the Island of Lesbos, in the Aegean Sea, actually exists and is not some mythic legend like Atlantis. I did actually know it existed, but that's the extent of what I knew until I read Sappho Sings.
Though Sappho was a prolific writer of poetry only a few original fragments of her work remain in existence, and it is with these fragments that Bell weaves the mesmerizing tale of an accomplished, passionate woman as real and flawed as any woman alive today.
Bell's vision of Sappho begins with her as a fatherless, feisty teenage girl, small in stature but a lion in spirit, who defies a tyrant and pays for it by being banished from her beloved island home and the adored little brother whose birth took her mother's life. On the miserable journey from Lesbos to Syracuse, Sappho loses her lifelong friend and betrothed, Alkaios, in a storm. She is rescued and "captured"--at least that's her view of it--by Kerkolos, a sea-going, wealthy merchant, who takes her to his home in Syracuse.
He treats her with utmost respect that eventually calms her fears of becoming a slave or concubine, and his gentle ways, so at odds with his appearance, win her over to friendship. They wed, and Sappho gives birth to his daughter. She feels great fondness for him, if not passion, and is grief-stricken and frightened when she finds herself suddenly widowed and at the mercy of her truly horrible mother-in-law.
Eventually Sappho initiated in the rites of the Sisterhood of Iphis and discovers that, though she is capable of physical passion with men, her heart is taken by women. The cast is large; some of the names are vaguely familiar from Ancient History in High School many years ago. I didn't find them very interesting back then. Now they certainly are!
The characters are unforgettable, especially Praxinoa, the nurse and lifelong friend; Lycos, the elegant and somewhat effeminate man whose loving friendship also lasts throughout the book, and the tall, Nubian queen, Gongyla, the love of Sappho's life, a woman who sold herself into slavery to save her people from a similar fate. I will never forget these people who have been my companions for many days.
Bell's knowledge of society and of place seems encyclopedic and yet not overwhelming. The language is just archaic enough in structure that it keeps you grounded in the ancient world but not enough so that it seems overdone. Names are pronounced in footnotes, which is very helpful. Sappho Sings is also the most sensuous book I have ever read: the lush descriptions of place, the elegantly expressed passion of depicted intimacy are poetic without crossing the line into the ludicrous, as sometimes happens when less gifted authors attempt it.
It is simply a wonderful book. It is not a quick and easy read, and it's certainly not a genre romance although love of many kinds permeates the pages. Part of that is the author's love of her subject.
This book should be winning awards. I can't recommend it highly enough.
--Ruth Sims, author of The Phoenix
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.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 of a different world, and the details and the visual sense (as well as auditory and olfactory sense) are derailed, 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.