POETRY:  After Sappho and The Old Islam

Michael Wolfe

Posted Oct 2, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

from Michael Wolfe

The Old IslamӔ is a sort of reformers ijtihad lyric and a feminist anthem.  The translation from Greek of ғAfter Sappho is a tombstone epigram attributed to Sappho, who flourished on Lesbos, one of the Ionian islands off the Turkish coast, around about 590 C.E..  I translated her lines as a token for those lost in the Twin Towers in New York City.


These are the bones of Timas who died before she could wed.
Death showed her down to the dark cave of Persephone.

Left to live without her, her companions shaved their heads
Lightening their grief with sharpened razors.
(Palatine Anthology)


Such remote music, what stifled cries
How many couplets of heartbreak

Since men rewrote the old Islam,
And not a poet among them.

Leila, Amina, look, a new moon
Tearing across white clouds tonight

Like a dagger behind a curtain. Imagine
Claiming your birthright before it sets.

Time to dab scent on the upper lips
of those tedious philologians in the law court.

Time to refresh their cells with musk,
Guiding the quills in their shaky hands

To reason. Once thatԒs accomplished, 
Ill host a night at the AghaҒs house

And drill their lordships to the strains
Of Kashgari musicians.

Let the bright hall swell all night
With lost songs from the Shash makam.

Well lift our voices as we like
Under alabaster ceilings,

Warming the weary leaden veined,
Raising live sweat on their foreheads.

You add the grace notes, IҒll shift keys,
Moving our feet to sweet cross-rhythms. 

Then well step out to greet the stars
And soothe our aching throats with sherbet,

(Till dawn arrives and everyone
Departs, barefooted through the gardens.)