The Queer Syllabus: “Fragments, on Love and Desire” by Sappho

By

The Queer Syllabus is a joint project from The Rumpus and Foglifter Press that allows writers to nominate works for a new canon of queer literature. When we identify our roots, when we point to the work that shaped us as writers and as people, we demonstrate that our stories are timeless, essential, and important—and so are we. New entries will run on Thursday, September through December, and then will be collected as a living document on the Foglifter website. The Queer Syllabus is edited by Wesley O. Cohen and Marisa Siegel.

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I.

…You burn me…

In Latin, I sat next to Sadie while we translated from a shared copy of Virgil’s Aeneid. I was so close I could smell the heat coming off her skin.

She was a year ahead of me in school. And so cool. When she talked in class, I retained nothing she said. My ears burned. I had kissed girls before but I had never craved a woman the way I wanted Sadie.

I left my Virgil in my locker and from then on, we had to sit together. I slid my chair close enough that our shoulders touched. Then, our arms. I stared at the rhymed quatrains on the page, realizing for the first time that we were trying to revive a dead language. The futility of that didn’t register with me then—I was fifteen, and hadn’t yet shredded the ribbon-slender roots that tied me to the ground.

My wrist touched her wrist. I folded my arms. She did not move away from me. With my hidden fingers, I reached toward her. My hand felt her shape, the warm curve of her breast. She did not move away from me. I held my breath while we conjugated, so thrilled I thought I might die of desire.

 

II.

Remembering those things
We did in our youth…
…Many, beautiful things…

Sappho’s poems are characterized by what they are missing. The fragments. Scholars speculate on what’s missing. They draw connections between the poems and infer meaning from her various declensions. I always wonder what we lost, or if her stanzas were designed to decay, like love, or like Latin.

 

III.

…Again and again…because those
I care for best, do me
Most harm…

A pair of girls in the 90s in Virginia. We drove around in her car smoking and listening to The Flaming Lips and Tori and Ani DiFranco. Our school didn’t teach Greek, and I complained about it, because I thought I believed in a classical education. In her car, I could say anything I thought. She drove stick, a Snapple bottle stuck between her thighs.

Strawberry kiwi kisses. She tasted like summer.

 

IV.

You came, and I was mad for you
And you cooled my mind that burned with longing…

We parked on quiet streets and kissed in her car. Sometimes, out of breath, we would roll down the fogged windows and talk, and she was so smart and painfully beautiful, and above all I wish I remembered what we said to each other. Those humid nights at the beginning of the first semester are blank spaces, with fragmented images sputtering in them, as a match will flare in a window across the street and your eyes go to it, you can’t help but look, it’s a signal of danger. We instinctively lean toward heat. We need to know where it’s coming from.

 

V,

Once long ago I loved you, Atthis,
A little graceless child you seemed to me

We kissed in cars, cemeteries, the girls’ bathroom, on her bed, on mine, at the movies after Girl, Interrupted. I don’t remember if I said I loved her, but I did. I took greedy bites of her.

 

VI.

Nightingale, herald of spring
With a voice of longing…

We couldn’t hold hands in the hall. She got almost-perfect SAT scores and a scholarship to a college in New York. Her dad got sick. Her brother was a problem. Her dog, Honey, was so dumb that if you threw a blanket over her, she would just sit there and accept the darkness.

I could feel winter coming when I touched her.

 

VII.

Eros, again now, the loosener of limbs troubles me,
Bittersweet, sly, uncontrollable creature…

And on her breasts, in frantic patterns, razor cuts. She turned her claws on herself. I held her skin like I could heal her with the warmth of my hands.

Because I still had faith in my immunity to someone else’s pain. When my powers did not work, I backed away. It never occurred to me that there was a problem love couldn’t fix.

 

VIII.

………but you have forgotten me…

She put out a pack of cigarettes on her arm.

 

IX.

You and my servant Eros…

She left a box of poems and dying roses on my doorstep.

 

X.

Like the sweet-apple reddening high on the branch,
High on the highest, the apple-pickers forgot,
Or not forgotten, but one they couldn’t reach…

I still remember those poems. By heart. I remember where I was standing. I remember how it felt.

 

XI.

Neither for me the honey
Nor the honeybee…

Over bitter coffees, I held her hand and said, Okay, it’s your turn to break up with me.

 

XII.

Come from heaven, wrapped in a purple cloak…

She said, I don’t want to go out with you anymore, and I cried. It was a surprise.

 

XIII.

Of all the stars, the loveliest…

I have no right to miss her, but I do.

 

XIV.

I spoke to you, Aphrodite, in a dream…

Sometimes I look her up, and every time I do I am loose-kneed again. She is still so cool. Every new thing she does—I am lost for words.

 

XV.

Yet I am not one who takes joy in wounding,
Mine is a quiet mind…

Since Sadie, there have been more women. I kiss them and I make them cum and I talk the air out of them. I go to the ballet with them and buy them dinner. I hold them. I feel the coals in my belly, but they do not make me warm.

 

XVI.

Like the mountain hyacinth, the purple flower
That shepherds trample to the ground…

I used to write her letters on lavender note paper stamped with grapevines. My handwriting so formal and clear. I doubt she has kept them, over the last twenty years, and if I were her I would not have kept a place in memory for me. Or what we did.

Everything I was, I fumbled to give her. I failed. I was a mistake. She told me I wasn’t really gay—she said I was a tourist. No wonder we broke up. We didn’t even speak the same language.

Other poets have resuscitated Sappho as a character: Ovid, John Donne. But in their work, she speaks too much. There is no space or silence. Like men always do—they pack in everything they can think of. They’re afraid to leave well enough alone.

 

XVII.

Dear mother, I cannot work the loom
Filled, by Aphrodite, with love for a slender boy…

When we loved, we said nothing. Our hands talked over each other’s bodies. Feeling for empty places. The signs that said, light here. And set us both on fire.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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Foglifter is a queer journal and press showcasing powerful, intersectional writing that fosters queer writers and galvanizes the queer community through literary events and programming.


Claire Rudy Foster is a nonbinary, queer writer. Claire’s work appears in the New York Times, McSweeney's, Catapult, and many other journals. They live in Portland, Oregon. More from this author →