He seems to me equal to gods that man who opposite you
sits and listens close to your sweet speaking
and lovely laughing -- oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, a moment, then no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks, and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead -- or almost
I seem to me.
Fragment 31, Sappho
I received this white whole cloth quilt that was beginning to rot away from passage of time. The back was the worst with big holes and disappeared batting so first I covered the back all over with new batting, some of which was not batting at all but a felting material (pre-felt) and then I added a layer of silk and rayon squares that had been dyed with and marked in the centres, all odd sizes, with large circles. And then after that, on the other side, I added easter egg shapes of silk velvet and then I quilted the piece, echoing and renewing the earlier maker’s thick blue thread only I used a pinkish avocado thread instead.
We used it on our bed during that velvet egg patching time and the colours were so very bright because they were from the pandemic dye experiments my artist daughter mixed up and the colours – well the colours were like spring and gave a renewal feeling of softness to that side. When I quilted it, echoing the interesting and beautiful whole cloth pattern from the original, I went through the velvet and the original quilt and then it was done. I washed and dried the thing in the machines – subjecting it to life and a kind of drowning death and then rebirth and oh wow, the pre-felted parts reacted and shrank and turned it into something older, or perhaps I mean more human. The amazing texture in the now quite misshapen quilt, is no longer usable as a bed quilt but too interesting to not look at and touch.
I look at it and think I want to wrap myself in this weird courage – this cloak of resilience and mistakes and time past and isolation-colour experiments. An object originally made by a woman I do not know but I admire nevertheless, a cloak from the pandemic when we didn’t know what we were doing or what would come next, when I was so afraid, but poured my fear and desire to protect my family into this cloth of many colours. A softer than soft quilt. An emotional cover up. A close listener to my sweet speaking and lovely laughter and my breath.
I think of my quilts as poems, and for me, this one is like Sappho’s fragment 31, her love poem that describes how she falls apart when she looks at the beloved. How she is greener than grass and also feels dead. Her tongue breaks and fire races under her skin and in her eyes no sight and in her ears drumming and cold sweat holds her and shaking grips her. "Greener than green I am and dead, or almost I seem to me."
And how this quilt fell apart, dead or almost – but now it is greener than grass on the inside. Dull on the outside, bright in the inside. Your sweet speaking. Your lovely laughing.
Fragment 31 is perhaps Sappho's most famous poem. In this post it is translated from the original Greek by Anne Carson. Fragment 31 was a key reference in Carson's long essay about the creative space of yearning, of not knowing but wanting to know and being in love with that erotic wooing or seeking, that human lovers and artists and thinkers are familiar with. Eros the Bittersweet, was selected by the modern library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time.