Sappho Questions Medusa


The piece below is part of an ongoing project in which Carla Nappi, an historian, and Carrie Jenkins, a philosopher, reimagine Plato’s Symposium into a collection of poems that centre women’s voices. It transforms a speech from Symposium, “Socrates Questions Agathon,” into the story of what might have happened if Sappho and Medusa had become lovers. Instead of Socrates pressing Agathon to anatomize and dissect the depiction of love that the poet had offered in his own speech, here Sappho herself is anatomized into rocks and gems and fossils through the love of her interlocutor. (Readers who are interested in reading this piece in conversation with the original text will spot the section of Plato’s “Socrates Questions Agathon” that informed its corresponding poem by following the numbers in each poem’s title: 198B-C, 198D, etc.)

0 (198B-C). In which Sappho’s poems are petrified before she has time to edit

1   My words are rock, my lyrics turned to stone

2   just as I was about to trim them down.

3   I’m left to time, then, as too much of me.

4   (I’d run if there had been a where to run

5   to, out beyond the shrivelled space of now.)

6   A woman whose dark hair’s a hissing crown

7   turned Gorgon eyes on me. (Has she seen you?)

8   (This is the count of every thing. One, two.)

1 (198D). And so we are left with a poet not in fragments but instead as overabundance

1   My words got tangled in her snaky head

2   and I found myself giving up my dawn

3   my lyre my long transparent dress

4   my music and now there’s too much of me

5   and of my words my songs myself my love…

6   I tried to cut them back in life, in death,

7   because I knew well that I didn’t know

8   the first thing about love. Poor, dear Sappho

9   who’s too much left. But that’s also, you see,

10   To be the winner. Paingiver. That’s me.

2 (198E-199A). What happens when a poet and a Gorgon have a love affair?

1   And as my lover turns my voice to stone,

2   the Gorgon bites into it like a peach

3   and chews and chews and chews

4                and

5                               chews

6                                               and

7                                                               chews

8   (What if your lover threw the pulp away

9   and ate only the seeds the peel the stem,

10   and what if that’s the way she ate you, too,

11   would you feel like a tree that fruited wrong?)

12   Toss me that apple and I’ll sing a song.

3 (199B). And so, as the Gorgon reads what her lover writes, and the eyes make love to the curves of the words, in those movements the poetry is petrified.

1   Rock worms crawl hard in the strata of me,

2   a rotting body that’s rot’s opposite.

3   I kiss my lover with a mouldy mouth

4   and try to breathe a poem in my kiss

5   while letters in my lungs go petrified

6   and each glass word rips tissue in its teeth,

7   a fossil of a phrasing of desire

8   as songs precipitate out from my flesh.

9   Break my body open when it’s done

10   and read my love traced in the stony breath

11   and find the questions trapped there in my gut

12   and crack my stony bowel to pull them free

13   and hold them up like Yorick’s skull to see:

14   And is this to be loved, or not to be?

4 (199C). And the reader turns paleontologist digging for the bones of music in the stone, as the lover digging in the body of her beloved.

1   Gentle as you brush the crusted blood

2   from vowels knobbing from my bones, and gentle

3   while you split the muscle as it sheets

4   like mica from the rhyming in my thigh,

5   and gentle, please, be gentle as you bring

6   the cracking constant hammer down again

7   to try to loose the music from my teeth,

8   and gentle, as you pry them from my gums

9   and drop the jagged fragments in a jar

10   already white with love-bleached bits of flesh

11   that make a pretty tinkling when you shake.

12   What if a poem set like sediment

13   its lines its layers hardening with time

14   its verses hiding fossils in the sand?

15   What if we bury creatures in a song?

16   (Y’all who sang before me did it wrong.)

5 (199D). So, dig. And ask your questions.

1   I watch the bits of sand drop into place

2   like jagged punctuation heaping piles

3   of stops and pauses stops and pauses stops

4   and stops and stops made out of little stones.

5   I follow their directions, one by one,

6   and stop. And stop. I stop. I stop. I pause,

7   I wait, I watch. A drop, a stop, I wait,

8   a drop, I watch. A geologic woman

9   marking time in sediment and breath

10   until the limestone like a mother heaves

11   her body metamorphic from the earth

12   as she gives marble birth to love deformed.

13   And whalebones stretch and pull her marble flesh,

14   her crystal belly chambers into vast

15   nautiloid hunger as it eats itself

16   alive, and watch I watch I rise I carve

17   new punctuation on this poet’s breast.

18   What’s happy if she’s not the happiest?

6 (199E). Now try to tell me about love.

1   What happens when you fossilize a voice?

2   Does it flake out from the lungs in sheet

3   music played by the wind and birds and rain?

4   (She once dreamed of a dinosaur who tried

5   to sing a song to his beloved but

6   all he could make with his crocodile throat

7   were low deep booms and so his lover thrust

8   her listening head down deep into the sand

9   and it stayed there until some eager boy

10   from some eager time came with pick and knife

11   and chipped away her ears and put the bones

12   into his little eager bag and slung

13   the sound stones on his shoulder with his lunch

14   and drove away. And after she awoke

15   whenever she would open lips and throat

16   all that came out were low deep booms and so

17   she loved her lover like a crocodile

18   and breathed out reptile valentines, her skin

19   scaling to play the sounds her voice recalled.)

20   (Her skin’s a purse, now. Fashion for the fall.)

7 (200A). Then keep this object of love in mind,and remember what it is.

1   I see you, feathered serpent. Sweet winged snake,

2   who coils at me in seashells and in wind-

3   borne dust around my head that settles in

4   amid my braids and covers me in time.

5   Desire depends on absence of the one

6   desired, they tell me. So I sit alone

7   with neck craned up to spot my pterosaur,

8   remembering how I wove your hissing hair

9   into a writhing pair of wings, and how

10   I pressed into your head like clay and raised

11   a regal beaky crown. (Don’t look at me,

12   my love: please turn around.) Quetzalcoatl

13   above me like a meteor demanding

14   sacrifice. What will you ask of me,

15   the woman waiting for you on the land,

16   if ever the sky lets you come back home?

17   Don’t ask yourself what’s likely, Socrates

18   said to a room once: think of what must be.

19   And so from sun to Socrates I turn,

20   and to necessity as my concern.

21   And when life wears me out, they’ll find me dressed

22   in raggy wings I’ll staple to my breast

23   when thinking of the love who wore them best.

8 (200B). Presumably, no one is in need of those things he already has.

1   Before my body ages into stone

2   I’ll open up my throat and sing for you

3   so that my voice creates a kind of time

4   that makes a kind of home where you can dwell.

5   And when the final beating of my heart

6   comes knocking on your door, you’ll find me there,

7   a column like a tree gone petrified.

8   Come touch my bark and turn me on my side

9   and make a deep cut through the trunk of me

10   and close your eyes and run your fingers round

11   the sedimenting of my voice like tree

12   rings marking out the rich years and the lean

13   and play me like a record of what’s been.

14   And will you, love, not then be satisfied?

15   Our story should have storms inside, you said.

16   Fulfilling a desire kills it dead.

17   Look upon the ocean when it roils

18   and metamorphosis is what you’ll see.

19   Look upon the waters when they’re still

20   and what you’ll see is yourself staring back.

21   Though satisfaction calms the choppy seas,

22   let us be groping kraken in a squall

23   instead of honest mirrors on a wall

24   that smudge and crack and shatter when they fall

9 (200C).

        But maybe a solitary woman could want to be solitary.

We’ll live inside a conch shell on a shore

and I can make my bed up at the tip

while you explore the water at the lip

and when my song twists toward you through the whorls,

the words accreting memories like pearls,

you’ll string them up and wear them as a crown.

        In cases like these, you might think people really do want to be things they already are.

I’ll find a crown-of-thorns starfish and string

the coral alveoli from my lungs

and drape the garland on the creature’s spines

and crawl inside one of the little globes

so when you see the moonlight on the sea

you won’t know that the tinsel’s hiding me.

        I bring them up so they won’t deceive us.

You’ll know of me the way you know of tinsel

coming into life in the earth’s mantle

(amethysts and other fruits of trouble),

rising to the surface with the pebbles

doing just their darndest to be humble,

finding friends only amidst the fossils.

        If you stop to think about them, you will see that these people are what they are, whether they want to be or not.

I’ll make my fossil friendships in the sand

while bits of me are crumbling into sand,

I’ll give my spine to trilobites, the sand

will polish all my ribs and when the sand

is done the arthropods will swim through sand

to come and claim my bones.

        And who, may I ask, would ever bother to desire what’s necessary?

You’ll live inside a cowry on the shore,

forgetting what your pearly crown was for.

10 (200D). Whenever you say, I desire what I already have, ask yourself whether you don’t mean this:

1   To love, he said, is only to desire

2   the preservation of what one has now.

3   And so preserve me, lover. With your stare

4   you’ll raise a fossil fauna from my ribs.

5   You look at me wiwaxic and the scales

6   grow skeletal upon me, spiny fingers

7   feather forth to brush across my bones.

8   Preserve me, keep me safe, glance at me

9   opabinic, sprouting stony stalky eyes

10   upon my feet to stretch and reach and look

11   upon you as you kill to keep me safe

12   from time from death from you. Preserve me, love.

13   Make me hallucigenic from the needling

14   worms your vision makes from crack and crush

15   as they crawl from my mouth and craft a smile

16   of spike and prick fit only for your kiss.

17   And when I’m found in fragments years from now

18   they’ll gather up what’s left inside a box

19   and label it and put it on a shelf

20   until one afternoon an artist, bored

21   of this or that will come to reconstruct

22   me in a spiny prehistoric story

23   of extinct morphologies of love.

24   With paint and ink she’ll raise me from the dead

25   and bloom fantastic gardens from my flesh

26   and make of me a lost strange clan of beasts

27   that time herself refused to let go of.

28   And will you recognize me then, my love?

11 (200E). For love is the love of something

1   Desire, he said, wants what is not at hand.

2   So take my hand and cover it in gold

3   and set the flesh with crystal pressed from our

4   remembrances by heat and force of time

5   like diamonds crushed from carbon. Take my foot,

6   and plate the stone in silver, carve a hollow

7   to the bone, and crane your neck to peer

8   inside, rebuild my step in gilt and lead

9   and rubies. Clothe my morbid meat in glass,

10   love, make me monstrance, monstrous, make me more,

11   and love will have its object to adore.

12   Desire, he said, wants what is not in reach.

13   So reach for me and dance me out of death,

14   scoop all the dreams out from my hollow eyes

15   and skip them on the shadows like the stones

16   that once bounced on imaginary ponds

17   you conjured for us in your fantasies.

18   Then hold me, put your lips against my teeth

19   and with your tongue lap up the poetry

20   within my breathless throat, and drink it down

21   and sing the mourning winds into a storm,

22   and love will have its language and its form.

23   Desire, he said, wants what it can’t possess.

24   So make a picture of me on the sand

25   and place my fragments each where they belong

26   and walk away as far as you can stand

27   and make a looking-glass out of your hand

28   and trace my constellation from afar

29   and let my bones help teach you who you are

30   and wish upon my absence like a star.

12 (201A). The gods do not waste their love on ugly things.

1   The gods love what is beautiful, you said.

2   So fashion me like clay torn from the ground

3   and fire me like ceramic in a kiln

4   and glaze me like Palissy, take the snakes

5   still clutched within my fists, and take the serpents

6   writhing in my teeth from when we kissed,

7   and cover them in iron, tin, and lead,

8   and hold me in the flames until the crayfish

9   turn to angels, rainbows in my skin

10   reanimated by the heat within.

11   And if I burn out, it’s all for the best:

12   I won’t make so much trouble when you dress

13   me like a dish and hurl me to the sea

14   to sacrifice me to divinity.

13 (201B). It turns out… I didn’t know what I was talking about in that speech.

1                                        you

2   fashion me

3   and fire me

4   and glaze me




8   and hold me

9                                       in my skin


11   And if I burn


13                            hurl me to the sea

14   sacrifice me

14 (201C). It is not hard at all to challenge Socrates.

1                                         you










11               burn



14                           me

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Carla Nappi is Mellon Chair in History at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on the history of bodies and their translations and transformations in the early modern world, largely based in work with Chinese and Manchu texts. She works in short fiction, poetry, non-fiction and podcasting, and you can find more about her work at carlanappi.com.



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