Entering Sappho

Reviewed by Annick MacAskill

Sarah Dowling

Coach House Books, 96 pages, $21.95, 2020

There is something vaguely erotic about the cover art for Entering Sappho, Sarah Dowling’s latest collection of poetry. A road curves through an evergreen forest, splitting the two words of the overlaid title. Designed by Crystal Sikma, the image mimics a camera’s aerial shot, though when I look closely, it appears to be painted or otherwise illustrated. The effect is suggestive, and points to Dowling’s subject matter: the figure and legacy of Sappho the poet and the geographical space of Sappho, Washington, USA.

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of Sappho, the seventh-century BCE poet from the island of Lesbos. Not only is she noteworthy for the beauty of her own poems, which depict romantic and erotic relationships between women, but Sappho has seized the attention of writers for over two millennia, inspiring multiple translations and rewritings.

Difficult, also, to rewrite Sappho at this juncture, but the long sequences in Entering Sappho are Dowling’s (relatively successful) attempts to do just that. Conceptually entering the space of Sappho, WA, the poet’s reflection bifurcates, exploring both the sensual poetics of the writer and a contemporary colonial landscape, its name reflecting the prominence of European culture in settler life. Often, these two paths meet and intertwine. In the first long sequence “Clip,” for example, Dowling pairs the yearning of Sappho’s odes with a contemporary, rural setting: “What girl wants to live in nearness / to fishing? What country girl is un- // spoiled nature?”

There’s a meditative quality to Entering Sappho, a centrifugal movement that emerges as Dowling reinterprets and remixes her understanding of both the geographical and the literary Sappho. So proceeds “Soft Memory,” my favourite poem in the book, a sequence quickly identifiable as a rewriting of Sappho 31 (her “Ode on the Beloved”). A poem that has invited translations and imitations since antiquity, Sappho 31 is written in the voice of a woman who watches with envy as her beloved—another woman—flirts with a man. Dowling’s version employs repetition, paraphrase, and amplification to extend Sappho’s one-page poem to a multi-page work. Composed via intermediaries, namely French imitators of Sappho, what this piece adds to the original and its legacy is voluptuous, expansive movement, a back-and-forth and a circling around the lines it has borrowed.

For Dowling, the figure of Sappho has political resonance. The queer settler poet and the queer settler persona(s) of these poems must reckon with the implications of their model, a queer icon (specifically, an icon of lesbian writing), and a distinctly European icon. Like a microcosm of ongoing discussions about racism within white queer culture, Entering Sappho celebrates the legacy of the Greek poet while interrogating the prominent positioning of a Eurocentric canon.

Annick MacAskill is a poet based in Kjipuktuk/Halifax, part of the unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq. She is the author of two collections, No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and shortlisted for the JM Abraham Poetry Award, and Murmurations (Gaspereau Press, 2020).

Currently on Newsstands

44.3 Indigenous Brilliance cover

ROOM 44.3, Indigenous Brilliance
Edited by Karmella Cen Benedito De Barros, Emily Dundas Oke, Jessica Johns, Patricia Massy & Jaye Simpson

In This Issue: Afuwa, Binish Ahmed, Jamaica Baldwin, Mariam Barry, Karmella Cen Benedito De Barros, Jo Billows, Brandi Bird, Jaime Blankinship, Moe Butterfly, Juanita Cordova, ‘Cúagilákv (Jess Housty), Francine Cunningham, Em Day, Amah Cynthia Dongo (A.C.D.), Justin Ducharme, Meghan Eaker, Edzi’u, Ooleepeeka Eegeesiak, Prudence Emudianughe, Jenny Ferguson, Sunkosi Galay-Tamang, Hannah Victoria Gentes, Ciana Hamilton, Whess Harman, Karlene Harvey (Holy Smoookes), Ocean Hyland, Wanda John-Kehewin, Samantha Jones, Valeen Jules, Jónína Kirton, Cheyenne Rain LeGrande ᑭᒥᐊᐧᐣ, KL Lyons, Lucy Mahoney, Samantha Martin-Bird, Hailey Bird Matheson, Amber McCrary, Frankie McDonald, Nahanni McKay, Tiffany Morris, Samantha Nock, Leece Oliver, Michelle Porter, Gretchen Potter, Tricia Rainwater-Tutwiler, Sado.thestrange, Reanna Lorraine Savard, Kayla Shaggy, Madeson Singh, Toni Giselle Stuart, Kay Thomas, jaz whitford, Senaqwila Wyss, Cheyenne Wyzzard-Jones, Sussan Yáñez – Kallfümalen

Join us on Patreon

Become a RoomMate!

Announcing Room’s New Membership Program
Seeking: RoomMates who love literature, events, merchandise, and supporting marginalized creators!

 

Subscribe to our newsletter

Be the first to know about contests, calls for submissions, upcoming events.

* indicates required

Visit our Store

Share This