Review: Hearing Sappho in New Orleans: The Call of Poetry from Congo Square to the Ninth Ward. By Ruth Salvaggio. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012.
Sappho and New Orleans? At first glance, the juxtaposition seems arbitrary, if not entirely capricious. The ancient Greek lyricist, lover of women and inspirer of later poets; and a polyphonic North American city, birthplace of jazz and site of a catastrophic flood? That American Studies scholar and New Orleans native Ruth Salvaggio discovered her water-soaked copy of Sappho in the rubble of her post-Katrina Lakeview home; that Sappho’s huge body of work exists today only in fragments; that New Orleans, admittedly a feminine and poetic city, is itself fragmented and water-soaked—surely these correspondences, evocative though they might be, are not enough to fill a 200-page book with brilliant insights and beautifully articulated readings.
Yet following the logic of feeling as well as of thought, Salvaggio, in her profoundly original book, gives full and fair hearing to the voice of Sappho and the voices of New Orleans—“hearing as in listening, but hearing also in the sense of giving this voice a hearing, as if to listen is to be engaged in an act of justice” (20)—demonstrating how the poet and the city illumine one another, showing what it means, not just to miss New Orleans, but to mourn and to long for all that has gone missing in all our lives.
Hearing Sappho In New Orleans: The Call of Poetry from Congo Square to the Ninth Ward is a deeply passionate work of scholarship and personal reflection, mixing memory and desire, combining painstaking archival research and compelling prophetic vision. A book that teaches its readers to see both poetry and history anew, it insistently opens us to our own memories and our own desires—for New Orleans, for our selves, for one another. “We all live below sea level” (29), Salvaggio writes, just as we all know that “the levees . . . will break again,” when a “forgotten past will come pouring back” (17).
“From somewhere, far away, someone is calling” (70). Early on, Salvaggio sounds the keynote of her book, locating it in the “long song,” identified by New Orleans jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet as that song “you gotta hear . . . starting way behind you” (3). Sappho’s antique lyrics constitute such a long song, a “song of longing” (23) as Salvaggio glosses it. Bechet, though, was referring to the “forgotten voices of Africans,” those slaves, including his grandfather who danced and sang in Congo Square (3).
In her sensitive readings (or, more properly, “hearings”), Salvaggio too calls up the lyric voices of Africans, along with those of Native Americans and the French and Spanish Catholic settlers in New Orleans. Persuasively, she argues that a proper hearing of these non-Anglophone, non-Protestant Creole voices (“the whispering sound of women” , “soft in the mouth” ) might lead to a new understanding of American literary traditions, displacing “the continuing English-language domination of American literature” (90). And she shows that these oral Creole traditions, grounded in New Orleans and centered at Place Congo, bear the same relation to the American mainstream as do Sappho’s lyrics to the European literary heritage—simultaneously foundational and forgotten.
Part of what has been forgotten is a past in which violence against women, against Africans, against Native Americans disrupts the complacent “white male conversation” of Euro-dominance. As Salvaggio writes, “Some voices need to remain in fragments in order for others to be whole. Slavery, in both the ancient and modern worlds, calls into question the imagined purity of the past that we are quick to claim as our grand inheritance” (72). Thus Salvaggio carefully hears the Creole songs preserved in collections edited in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, songs mourning the sorrows of Zizi, and Lele, and Azelie and Lolotte—all unknown women lamenting a loss as old as desire itself. And drawing on the work of Sappho scholars Page DuBois (Sappho is Burning) and Joan DeJean (Fictions of Sappho), Salvaggio shows how Sappho has figured in European representation of women, of poetry, of desire; yet she also offers her own new and evocative readings of those fragments, bringing them fully into the present and into contemporary New Orleans.
Nicole Cooley, Brenda Marie Osbey, Nancy Harris, Sharon O’Donnell, Katherine Soniat, Sybil Kein, Gina Ferrara are among the contemporary New Orleans women poets Salvaggio hears as she listens for “the call that maintains our mutual being” (34). Perhaps the most evocative of the connections Salvaggio makes is that between Sappho’s renowned “Aphrodite of the spangled mind” and Brenda Marie Osbey’s “lady of anything / at all.” Sappho begs Aphrodite to descend in her sparrow-drawn chariot, to be her ally in love, while Osbey invokes the more humble and ubiquitous “lady of the sidewalks . . . / of sorrows and sadnesses . . . /of coffee houses open all night and churches closed all day.” As she elaborates the connections between these “ladies” and others, Salvaggio also reminds us of Ruthie the Duck Girl, “the one who comes when summoned after heartbreak and high water, beyond reason and all that reason has abandoned. She arrives on her skates and in her chariot, trailed by a duck or two. She is the humble incarnation of a spangled lady in a poem—astonishingly ornamented, subtly consoling” (182).
What Salvaggio has given us in Hearing Sappho in New Orleans is a new kind of scholarship, a new kind of poetry, “astonishingly ornamented, subtly consoling.” For her book is itself a lyric, celebrating a city that is not only “a reservoir of lyric voice” (122) but also a poem that awakens us to an awareness of our fragility and our inter-relatedness. The book is a “long song” that we will listen to again and again, with wonder and delight, sorrow and recognition.
Reviewed by Joyce Zonana
Joyce Zonana is a Professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. She has published numerous academic and personal essays in a variety of journals and is a regular book reviewer for Lilith Magazine. Her memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an exile's journey, was published by The Feminist Press. She lived in New Orleans for fifteen years and guest-edited the inaugural issue of Nola Diaspora.