Sappho’s Tears | Sheelagh Russell-Brown

“If I only had something to hold your long locks, to hide
Them away with spangled linens, crown your head with flowers”
-(Sappho, from Fragment 98, thought by some to refer to her daughter Kleis, who was exiled with her to Sicily from her birthplace, Lesvos)

The shores where once they tell me poets walked
On sand that shone with shells,
Where waves lapped lovingly the margins of the land,
Are crowded now with tents, with tears,
With shadowed eyes that scan the sea,
That gaze into the past, that fear to search the future.

She was a mother, too, this poet was.
She too knew exile, knew the loss of love, of land, of life,
But happily returned to Lesvos’s shore.

Not I and not my tiny daughter,
ripped from my arms as from the womb.

Safe now once more inside the amniotic waters
That break upon the shore
And cast their burdens on the sand,
My daughter lies,
The pains of birth my own once more,
And then no more,

Her coverings taken by the unmothering waves.
I call for spangled linens to cover her small body now
And make a crown of seaweed for her dark hair.

After having taught in the Czech Republic for seven years, Sheelagh Russell-Brown has been a lecturer in English literature and a writing tutor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her research interests are in nineteenth and twentieth century British literature, in particular the portrayal of the Roma in art and literature and the foregrounding of previously marginalized female roles in neo-Victorian fiction.

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