Sailing to Lesbos
(I have been faithful to thee, Cythera, in my fashion…)
My heart was fraught with joy; free as a seagull
Zooming around in the rigging, while the ship
Frolicked like an inebriated angel,
Drunk on the sunshine.
What is that miserable-looking island?
Lesbos. The sacred isle they all sing about,
The sad old spinsters. See it for what it is –
Place of sweet secrets, where true hearts celebrate,
And the essence of Sappho drifts like perfume
Over the ocean, breathing love and langour
Into our spirits.
Island of myrtle, land of full-blown roses,
Worshipped by everyone of our persuasion,
Where sighs of satisfaction rise like incense
Out of the flowers,
Or like the nonstop gurgling of turtledoves!
– Lesbos. Just a barren land torn by shrill cries.
A desert strewn with rocks among which I saw
It was not a temple in a shady grove
Where the priestess, hot with a secret passion
Loosened her robe to stand before the breezes
Holding it open.
No; we saw – as we sailed so close to the shore
That the flapping sails sent the seabirds wheeling –
A gibbet like a black tree with three branches
High on the clifftop.
Greedy birds, perched on the meat they were eating,
Tore into the remains of a rotting corpse.
Using their beaks as filthy tools they dibbled
Into her crannies;
Her eyes were holes and from her plundered belly
The innards dangled onto her parted thighs.
Her torturers had pierced and desecrated
All that was woman.
Beneath her feet, four-legged, earthbound creatures
Gazed upwards, jealous, milling round one great beast
That loomed like a Lord High Executioner
Over its cronies.
Lesbian, born under a beautiful sky
You suffered these insults in silence, paying
For your bad adorations whose detractors
Left you unburied.
Poor dangling woman, all your griefs are my own.
I retched, feeling the bile rise behind my teeth
Connecting me with a running, far-reaching
River of sorrow.
Looking at you, poor creature, I felt again
All the old tooth-and-claw of my own nature
Tearing me into shreds, like crows and panthers
Killing me slowly.
The sky was delightful and the sea was smooth
But from that moment all seemed black and bloody
And I wrapped my heart in that allegory,
All I found standing on your island, Sappho,
A black gibbet where my own image swivelled.
Steel me to look at my own heart and body
And not feel sickened.
Ann Drysdale lives in Old South Wales, UK, and has been a hill farmer, water-gypsy, gonzo journalist and single parent – not necessarily in that order. Her fifth volume of poetry, Quaintness and Other Offences, has recently joined a mixed list of published writing.