The Islands Project: Poems for Sappho

By Robin Becker

 With the publication of her seventh collection of poems, Eloise Klein Healy joins the ongoing conversation about Sappho that continues to engage critics, poets, scholars, and translators. Who was the historical Sappho? What do we make of the fragments she left us? What is her legacy to contemporary poets, particularly lesbian poets? Healy gets at these and other questions by addressing Sappho directly, questioning her, speculating about her life. The speaker in “Sappho, the Essential Shape” declares: “I hear you breathing / across time / in the burned libraries, / in the muffled gestures, / in the prohibitions.” Healy examines not only the prohibition against lesbianism, but also the subtler ones—those that systemically discourage girls and women from intellectual and physical achievement. She explores both the formal and informal messages and training girls receive in a fascinating group of poems including “The Singing School,” “Tutelage,” “If There Were No Books,” “So The Teacher Jumped Up On The Desk,” “For the Girl Child” and others.

 Juxtaposing images from classical and popular and culture, Healy bridges biography and autobiography, Los Angeles and Lesbos, traditional and experimental forms. Chant, lyric, narrative, fragment, sestina, persona poem, list poem, and nonce forms appear in these pages, showcasing her prosodic range. Sappho as foremother takes her place alongside others: the speaker’s biological mother Carmen; literary “mothers” Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, May Swenson and (yes!) Walt Whitman. Healy’s lineage includes the working people of her North Hollywood neighborhood “who paint the sets and set the toupees, / who make the rain fall and the snow bank, / make the bullets pock the sides of buildings.” Healy’s ear for colloquial diction and her gift for yoking disparate people and periods will delight and surprise readers. One of my favorites, the poem below highlights Healy’s savvy deployment of diction and syntax.


So The Teacher Jumped Up On The Desk


So the teacher jumped up on the desk

in our freshman English class,

the front door to the mind for us little less than

middle-class Catholic girls at Immaculate Heart College &,

our eyes fixed on our professor, his spit flying,

his suit coat and tie flying,

him waving a little black & white copy of this Howl

like it’s a hymnal & he’s got religion,

he’s got the juju chant & rattle

of a million dead rosaries sent electrical

shock to revive & turn themselves into the

knuckle joints and knee bones of the living—

Let’s dance it all started to say, let’s

shake this thing, this hour, this book, this life

which is not going to be the one you registered

for—NO, you are not going to return to the


parish & iron the alter cloths. NO, you are not

going to carpool, learn golf, play bridge

on Tuesdays or join the Catholic Daughters

of America, you are NOT going to make

Jell-O molds & tat doilies, you are going

to smoke a lot of dope & waste the weekends

drinking gallons of Gallo Hearty Burgundy

shirtless on the patio and you won’t be alone.

The Beatles are coming, the Beatles are coming &

you are getting a booster shot for antiwar proclivities,

you are getting so amped that language

will not rest like a four-cylinder low-mileage

car in your garage but turn into a nitro-burning

dragster in your guts—peeling, wheeling, weaving

from lane to lane before the abandoned pavement

altogether, airborne without a parachute.

You are ready for flame out flame out.

The sky opening like a mouth & wrapping its lips

around your paganized shoeless and blessed feet says

inhale the impetus to flee your former self,

ditch all your classes & go who knows where

or cares.



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