Page DuBois, Sappho Is Burning

Under every river is the floor of the world,
and curling downstream a beautiful ribbon
printed with the story
of where water comes from and returns.

Under the sea is the mother of the world
and from her fiery body islands appear,
spangled dots above the waves,
and begin their march away
from their birth ground.

From cliffs and shores, I’ve seen many islands,
sister and brother islands,
across a rocking plain of water.

Long sweeps of waves mark their beaches
like brush strokes, leaving a hint at the tide line
of a poem taken back into the body
of the sea time and time again.

Who speaks for anything? Who can hold
the paper or the brush long enough?
Is not everything we know a little island
set off from something larger,
a shoreline to walk while thinking,
while imagining?

Doesn’t every story begin ankle-deep in the sea?

The Islands Project: Poems For Sappho (Red Hen Press 2007)



     “Lesbia quid docuit Sappho nisi amare puellas”
     “What did Sappho of Lesvos teach except how to love girls”


I only flirt with
you because Sappho can’t is
what I tell myself

The Islands Project: Poems For Sappho (Red Hen Press 2007)



     for Alicia Ostriker

My voice has two mothers,
my own mother, Carmen,
and Sappho,
both lost in history
for different reasons
and both preserved in me.

I heard in my mother’s voice
the inflections of her family,
my old Montana uncle
and the stones of the White Rocks
up where the Missouri River is born.

My mother in later life would fade a little
as evening came on,
her tone of voice shifting to Uncle Roy’s
as if she had tuned into
a radio station on a long trip
across open country.

And Sappho I hear with my eyes closed,
the push of a woman
singing into my diaphragm,
thrilling as the hum of my mother’s voice
when she sang to me as a child.

Whitman described it best—the “valved voice”
Where would I be without Walt?
Mother Whitman, as Alicia calls him.

Sometimes my Freshman English teacher
made light of him, the line “handkerchief
designedly dropped” and “my barbaric yawp.”
I sat through the class, rehearsing poetry, knowing
in an inchoate way
what it would take
to sing in a woman’s voice

as maybe Walt tried to do,
or maybe he just tried to sing
and a woman’s voice joined him
from the soul of the world

The Islands Project: Poems For Sappho (Red Hen Press 2007)



Dogs, out of the kitchen!—repeated five times in ascending notes
and increasing volume as the hands sweep through the air
with or without cooking implement or towel.

Don’t drop anything because a dog will dart into the kitchen
and you will have to repeat step one and increase the volume
and perhaps even make a threat or two, step briskly toward them,

or if something does fall in front of the sink, a dog will dive
and get her/his nose under the lip of the cabinet
and maybe let out a yelly yelp

which is pretty much meaningless
in the lifetime of two dogs who are waiting at the edge
of the tile for the cook to turn her back and shift her

attention to the REAL recipe, the one with at least
a countertop full of leafy things with fronds dropping
where a skillful dog can reach and run from the room

with cilantro, kale, beet tops, anything green and gorgeous
anything that feels like a precursor to a real meal like that breast
of chicken unswaddled from its Saran wrap and pretty slippery

right now, pretty “possible” in the mind of a dog whose owner
is reaching into the cupboard, back turned, humming a tune
and not quite as mindful as she should be, silly believer

in what she just said for the three millionth time
in the life of these two canines—like they care
about repetition, maybe being reincarnations

of those kitchen loving poodles Gertrude Stein
used to spoil with little treats and little oppsy-dipsy pets,
little smoochy-mouth French words

that are even now taking our minds off the fact
the dogs are in the kitchen again and the cook
is back to step one, screaming, “Dogs!! Out of the kitchen!!”

The Islands Project: Poems For Sappho (Red Hen Press 2007)



I saw one narrow as a blade
in a man’s black suit

I saw one drop her pages
on the floor and walk away
from the microphone like a bullfighter
turning his back on a bull

I saw one with generous breasts
in a floral print dress shift
from one foot to the other
while her body blushed all over

I saw one in pain, in pain
enough for ten strong women
but she didn’t say a word about that
pain, she went deep under the water
and came back and she wasn’t alone

I saw one who’s breasts were cut off
and she sang anyway saying,
“Nobody cut my throat yet”

I saw one who mid-wifed the language
of her tribe and taught everyone
to dance to its music

I saw one comb through history
sifting the dust for rings, for broken links
of gold, for altar pieces and the altars, too,
for the shapes of animals and birds
in conversation and divinity in the tracks of deer

I saw one in her coffin strewn with roses
and lilies, the narrow heaven she made
rising around her perfumed and dense as diamonds

I saw them in their labor and I saw them laugh,
and all of them, all of them have passed down Sappho’s street
in Eressos and stood at the beach
where the dark rock stands, where if you look carefully
you can see a lioness about to rise and go

The Islands Project: Poems For Sappho (Red Hen Press 2007)

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