By Dale M. Kushner


rizzoRemember Rizzo from the movie Grease? The indomitable Stockard Channing played a smoldering hottie who rivals the perky Olivia Newton-John. We recognize the split: Betty Rizzo struts her T & A. Wholesome Sandy flaunts perfect teeth.

Back in the day Rizzo was called a slut, a word that even sounds dirty. Leap forward thirty-five years and we’d be her cheering squad. Sure, Rizzo boasted a fine rack and leaned toward the uncouth, but like today’s female protagonists, she had moxie and smarts. Think: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. Think: Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games. Think: Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. These characters have more in common with the brazen dames immortalized by Crawford, Stanwyck, and Davis than they do with the kittenish Newton-John. Fifty years ago, in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan inspired women to stash their aprons next to their brooms and see what else the world offered. How would the prophetic Betty have reacted to what Elizabeth Hand calls the new Femininjas?

Grasp eagerly, girls, for fine gifts of crimson-bodiced
Muses, for the sweet peal of lyre.

My own once tender flesh has fallen into clutch
Of age, once dark hair turned leper white.

My heart plumbed by time, knees unfit for my own weight,
Which once sprang to fawn-like dance.

Oh I do go on about these things, but what to do?
Eternal youth is no human’s birthright.

For Tithonus of the tale, kidnapped by love-struck,
Rose-armed Dawn, and taken to world’s end,

Despite his immortal mate, and all his fine youth,
Could not outstrip white-haired age.


Translated by Uche Ogbuji


Er, haven’t you been dead a few thousand years?

You can’t keep a good old girl down.

Let’s get it out of the way, because what everyone is probably dying to ask you is: do you prefer men or women?

Oh unequivocally women.

And why is that?

Well women are, after all, the superior sex;  their rarified, inherent intelligence, their instinctual sensitivity, finer in senses than a rabbit; their high degree of conscientiousness in hygiene, their bathing in milk; their incredible acumen in regards to spice and fruit, their faun-like grace in movement; and, well, they just smell better, and they wiggle.

Were you a Lesbian in life?

I was of the great island of Lesbos, yes.

Oh you know what I mean, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Well there are some things I can’t reveal from the afterlife.  I’m free to offer you any impressions that do not reveal any worldly mysteries, but no more.

No worldly mysteries at all?

Well, of course not, otherwise I would have seen fit to protect my legacy by waking up some Constantinople printer of the 16th century or so, and reciting him my verses for preservation.

You said “Constantinople.”  So not “Istanbul” but “Constantinople?”

I said “Constantinople” because that’s what it was around the time I mentioned.  I try to stay above any quarrel with modern Istanbul, even though so many of classic Ionian stock were driven from the city due to ethnic riots in your last century.

And by the way, I do like the song.  It has an incantatory quality.

So no mysteries? Damn! We may never know whether you got it on with Dika? And Attis? and Anactoria? and Eirana? And maybe Abanthis and Gongyla in a threesome?

Very cheeky.  You know from what you have of my poems that I admired those sweet young girls, but even if I were inclined to kiss and tell, I’m bound to say no more.

So which contemporary woman best embodies the idea of love, and why?

Ooh, that’s a clever question.  Of course my mind flew immediately to Frida Kahlo, who is, alas no longer contemporary.  And I thought a bit of Drew Barrymore, and of Thandie Newton, but that might have been more like a rustling laugh after being tickled.  If you press me on the point, I would have to say Aung San Suu Kyi, because there is so much to love that its paragon must be a woman with so much to her.

Interesting that your choice is charged with some politics.  Why is it that your surviving poetry has so few references to the political conditions of your times? If you were to write a poem about the current state of political affairs what would it be entitled, and what would be the first line?

Ah, I must gently point out that the last request would be the equivalent of my unearthing a new fragment of my work, which I must remind you I am not free to do.

I can say what you already know, from commentators who had read my work before so much of it was lost, that there was some political content to my poetry.  That is inevitable considering my prominent family, and the times in which I lived.  I think you’ll find from those same sources that my poetry was extremely wide-ranging, covering heroic tales, love lyrics, odes, elegies, songs for prayer, songs for ritual dance, and much more.  Aristophanes of Byzantium collected 1,320 of my verses.  You may be surprised that no one theme dominated this number.  The politics of my times, as in all times, lay in all things, in love, in life, in story and song.  The politics of today, with so much more mingling of blood, and with so much intimate rubbing of far-flung nations, is more complicated.  It is not in my nature to take a narrow view through such complexity, so I enjoy as much as I can of the loves and lives, and stories and songs of your time.

There was once a United States Navy ship, commissioned from 1945 to 1946, named the USS Sappho. Do you approve of this? Why? Why not?

There was also a Navy ship USS Sappho from 1918 to 1919.  The 1945 edition was an Artemis-class ship, which also brings into the story my dear Goddess who regards the rose-fingered moon as I do.  The ship was named after a small planet, which was in turn named after me by Norman Pogson, who wrote his love for classical times into the skies.  Perhaps it is a little uncharacteristic for a warship to cry my name, but don’t forget my verses extolling the great ships of the Lesbian fleet.  I am content to be remembered, and I am specially content to be remembered in diverse circumstances.

Speaking of complex politics, what do you think about all the furore over gay marriage?

Surely you’ve read my marriage poems?  I wrote Epithalamia.  I wrote rude bits to be sung drunkenly around a wedding cash bar. Marriage is high and low, and it’s perfect and imperfect.  Young girls will find young men, and sometimes they will find fine women, and every union of lovers will take its place around a different arrangement of flowers.  The Gods will will pick their favorite households and crowd in with blessings and curses, so you might find one woman’s bed wrapped in the rose light of the moon as Artemis remembers her own night with Daphne, while the next year Hymen dances around that same woman’s bed as she lies with her new husband.  If the Gods have woven their verdicts directly into such lives, who am I to make an empty noise with my own judgments?

Whoa!  That was heavy.  Let’s lighten it up. What’s your favorite movie?

My Big Fat Greek Wedding, of course!  Well, besides the Athenian decor of Toula’s house, which was clumsy because so much else about the move was unmistakably Lesbian, even now.

And I’ll tell you my least favorite.  Mamma Mia.  A cackle of barbarians invading a gorgeous Greek island (they call it Calicos, but obviously they were thinking of Lesbos) to sing some intolerable songs by other barbarians?  Too much to take, let me tell you, even if the Sophie character made me think briefly of my beloved daughter, my Kleis.  It’s worth mentioning that the three potential fathers are all good examples of what the Suda calls Dick of Man as those comedians think of my—how is it again?—Baby Daddy.

For you, what differentiates lyric from poetry?

The music that accompanies it or does not.  Just kidding.  Lyric to my classical sense is a compact form which, given voice, can be stretched over notes in accordance with musical phrase, whereas poetry is more general, independent of external music, because it works its own song.

So do you consider yourself a poet or a lyricist?

A lyrical poet.

Recorded by the medium Uche Ogbuji, with reception assistance by Milo Martin and Rich Ferguson.