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Fragments that span the globe

SAPPHO IS BURNING by Page duBois, University of Chicago Press pounds 19.95 SAPPHO'S IMMORTAL DAUGHTERS by Margaret Williamson Yale University Press pounds 15.95
IN Ronald Firbank's novel Vainglory, first published in 1915, a group of London literati are rendered temporarily speechless at the discovery that the (fictional) new Sappho papyrus they have gathered to honour contains only seven words: "Could not, but for the fury of her feet ..." The appearance this month of two full-length studies devoted to Sappho's oeuvre - a mere 700 or so lines, many too fragmentary to decipher - might also raise eyebrows; as a translator of her work, I am often asked what I find to do.

Sappho is Burning, Page duBois's erudite collection of essays, tackles this challenge head-on. In a lyrical and impassioned analysis, she celebrates the aesthetics of the fragment, questioning the traditional emphasis of scholarship on "restoration, recovery" and calling for a focus away from grief at the irretrievably lost towards a new-found pleasure in what survives. Page duBois sees no need to "fill in the gaps" in Sappho's extant body of work - a woman's body, which in traditional male culture is often denigrated as incomplete. But in one of Sappho's most famous poems, duBois notes, this body dismembers and objectifies itself as the poet assesses the effect of loved one on lover " ... my voice deserts me / and my tongue is struck silent / my eyes see nothing, my ears whistle / like the whirling of a top." Such fragments, duBois concludes, both disturb and comfort, shattering the prevalent image of Greek culture as a disciplined whole, reassuring that even if cities fall, words fail, something of us will still survive.

Margaret Williamson's Sappho's Immortal Daughters also approaches the problems of fragmentation. In a taut and lucid discussion, she traces the vicissitudes and vagaries that characterise the survival of the poet's work, still excited by the possibility that more fragments - longer than Professor Inglepin's in Vainglory, we hope - will emerge from the trunks of unprocessed papyri languishing in library vaults. For Williamson the pleasure of Sappho's poetry is not its sense of fragmentation but of continuity. She stresses the communal role of Sappho's verse, composed for groups of girls at weddings or religious festivities, celebrating female sensuality and desire among Sappho's companions, blurring the distinctions between poet and audience, lover and beloved: "my dearest friends", fragment 160 proclaims, "today I will sing with a clear voice / to enchant you all ... " Sappho's continuing appeal, Williamson hints, lies in this timeless illusion of complicity, with even the smallest of fragments still drawing us in to their web of mutual desire and loss.

Williamson's approach is equally measured throughout. On the vexed question of Sappho's sexuality, for instance - the perennial "was she or wasn't she?" debate - she qualifies her belief that the ayes have it with a timely reminder, influenced by Foucault's work on ancient sexuality, of the differences between modern and classical cultures. Sappho's laments for lost loves, she argues, constitute not only a female value system parallel to that of male heroics, but paradoxically might also have prepared - and reconciled - young girls to the inevitable parting of marriage. Most of all she places Sappho in her class and time; an aristocrat writing in an age of political upheaval, revealing, Williamson believes, a concern for factional alliances even in her most personal poems such as the "Ode to Aphrodite" (fragment 1).

Williamson's Sappho undermines traditional views of submissive and silent women in the ancient world. Page duBois also recreates the past as she reclaims Sappho's "Asianism", finding the texts shot through with an oriental opulence, or re-imagines Plato's dialogues tainted by Sappho's sensualism. Her agenda here is to explore ways "in which postmodernist academia can approach the distant past" (although I can think of few classicists who might need reminding that "Plato doesn't have much in common with Kathy Acker or Cyberpunk"). Yet there is something beguiling about duBois's creative visions of Sappho, popping up unexpectedly like an upmarket "Where's Wally?" at a Platonic symposium or rhetorical debate, in androcentric histories of philosophy or sexuality - an anarchic sprite girdling not just the globe but the centuries, souring the milk of both traditional classical scholarship and contemporary debate.

In contrast, Williamson's careful and informative studies of individual poems produce a flesh-and-blood poet, who moves from girlhood to maturity, encompassing the ages of woman in her works. But the greatest triumph of both these books is their multiple reinventions of Sappho's texts, stretching tiny fragments to vast epics, squeezing whole centuries into a single word. Like Firbank's literati, we are left wanting more.

Josephine Balmer has translated the forthcoming anthology 'Classical Women Poets' (Bloodaxe Books)