Defragmenting Sappho

Last night I was at a Red Squirrel Scotland joint launch for Nalini Paul’s pamphlet Slokt by sea, and Kevin Cadwallender’s full collection Defragmenting Sappho.  Nalini recently spent a year in Orkney as George Mackay Brown Fellow, and many of the poems in this collection reflect her joy in the discovery of Orkney life, seasons and landscapes. Other poems recall her Canadian birth and Hindi background. It’s a delightful collection, and I recommend it highly. She said yesterday that her writing had changed in the year, becoming freer, more discursive, more narrative-based, than her previous Red Squirrel, Skirlags, which was short-listed for last year’s Callum Macdonald Award. It’s available from the Red Squirrel website.

Also available is Kevin Cadwallender’s collection, which is a marked departure from the sort of poetry we normally associate with Kevin. By all contemporary accounts, Sappho was a wonderful lyric poet but, sadly, only one of her poems has survived intact. The remainder exist only as fragments – maybe two or three words of a poem. Indeed it’s a tribute to the qualities of papyrus that these fragments have survived since 630BC. What Kevin has done – brilliantly in my view – is to take these fragments and to construct new poems around them, much in the way an oyster builds a pearl. I repeat that these are wholly new poems, and not attempts to reconstruct what Sappho might have written. They are, in the main, love poems. Here’s an example of Kevin’s technique:

Empurpled robes
and necklaces of linked violets
You were Aphrodite incarnate

And I loved you
as I have loved many since
but yet I am abandoned
or you love some man more than me
My eyes are sea mists
in longing for Gorgo
they melt awake
and the opened mind berates me

Only the words in italics are Sappho’s; the rest are Kevin’s.

Last night Kevin was joined in his reading by Sophia Walker, a fine poet I’ve heard before. The duets worked well, as did the lyre music playing in the background. Together they created a magical effect which will linger in the memory. This book is a major achievement, and deserves to be widely read. Buy it on the Red Squirrel website.


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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