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Livia Grossenbacher

Are you like me, Sappho? How to remember queer poets

Only in recent years have stories and voices of queer women been given space in the literary landscape, leaving us with only the smallest pieces of a past. A lesbian’s attempt to scrape together a history out of lines in poems, cut-out names in letters and the significance of what she calls herself.

For my birthday, my girlfriend wants to buy me a book. Between the stocked shelves of the bookstore, she asks the man at the register for a recommendation. She is not looking for anything in particular, just has one request: It should be by a woman who writes about falling in love with other women. The man at the register tells her that this bookstore does not have any books with stories like that.
She is unbelieving. This is a big bookstore, three floors, including an extensive novel section, and a smaller, albeit well-loved chapter with the classics. In all of these bound and printed pages, why should there be no space for a story that is like ours? Even though the lack of provided space does not show it, there must be stories like ours, mirroring us in earlier times and different minds, sharing the same feeling.
We are sure of that, because there is, for example, this:

Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to do?… I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you – that the expectation once more to see your face again makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast – I go to sleep at night, and the first thing I know, I am sitting there wide awake, and clasping my hands tightly, and thinking of next Saturday.

This love letter was written in 1852. Emily Dickinson wrote it to her childhood friend Susan Gilbert, who later became the wife of Dickinson’s brother. Despite of this, Susan stayed the recipient of a great number of letters the poet wrote throughout her life, and is also the at least suspected subject of many of Emily Dickinson’s poems.
Dickinson, with her unique style of ellipses and measured verse, has been part of the canon of English literature for more than a century. Her poetry, produced while surrounded by the heaps of nature-loving male poets the literary period of English Romanticism brought forth, carries not only its own style, but also some unmistakable affection towards female addressees.
Why is it then that the man in the bookstore did not place a collection of Dickinson poems in the well-manicured hands of my girlfriend?
It partially is because some of the stories by and about queer women in literature are well-hidden. Even though Emily Dickinson did write poems about love, and also some where she questions her gender («Amputate my freckled bosom! / Make me bearded like a man!»), she was not as explicit about what we today might call her queerness in her published work as she was in her personal letters to Susan.
Consequently, she was handled as a «spinster» by literary scholars until the late 20th century. Her marital status was presumed to be due to the fact that she was lacking any beauty.

When Ellen Hart published a collection of the existing letters between Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert in «Open me carefully» in 1998 and made their private affection public, the recently rallied and now visible queer community had just brought forth a new wave of literary critics oriented in the field of queer studies. They read Dickinson’s letters to Gilbert (many as feverish as the one above) as well as her poems as queer literature. Even though the second half of the 20th century saw a big shift in social ideals and rights regarding the LGBTQ+ community post-stonewall, this new queer reading of Dickinson did not go over without debate.
At first the reluctance to read Dickinson through a queer lens was due to the novelty of this possibility, as well as a prevalent and very casual homophobia accepted by most sections of English-speaking society. But even today, reading Dickinson as a queer author is controversial in some academic circles – the idea that one of the best loved female poets of the English language might have been attracted to women seems outrageous if not outlandish to the more conservative parts of literary academia. This notion is still rather widely spread: When I myself attended a seminar about Romantic poetry at my university, the 90-minute-session about Dickinson passed without the lecturer ever mentioning the possibility. Early-twenties me, who had read all about Dickinson’s affectionate language towards women in her poetry, ached to have that option discussed and validated in a university classroom in vain. I didn’t ask about it out of fear to be dismissed due to my age, and yes, due to my sexuality.

For those academics who have accepted Dickinson’s queerness in its hidden and blurry form, a new problem has arisen in recent years: As hungry as the queer community is for stories that represent us, that mirror us and our lives in some way, is it valid to force the label of queerness onto someone who in her lifetime did not have the «queer», «bisexual» or «lesbian» label available to her in the first place?
As with other potentially queer characters in history, assigning a modern label to someone who lived in a different society and therefore probably had a very different understanding of gender and sexuality than I and the reader have today proves highly problematic. We cannot claim to know how Emily Dickinson thought about who she was or was not in love with, and therefore must abstain from sticking a pride flag on our worn copies of «Because I could not stop for Death», even if we believe that in today’s time, she would have wanted us to do so.

However, I want to assign this label. Perusing the metaphorically empty shelves of queer women’s literature, and more specifically, women’s literature that is recognized as queer, I long to claim this story as mine. If I do, it provides me not only with a past but also with a story that is like my own. Radically, the possibility of Emily Dickinson writing queer poetry mirrors the experience of my seventeen-year-old self writing just as queer poetry in my bedroom. It shows me a story where I am not the only one living through these emotions, and that I never have been.
Now, this validation easier to find today. We have Alison Bechdel with her highly political graphic novels, the just as politically important stories by Ann Allen Shockley, and Sarah Waters’ rather raunchy novels. Most of these books are targeting adults as their audience – How could I have understood Bechdel’s highly complex strips about being queer in the Bush-era as a 14-year-old? In itself, this isn’t a bad thing, but when I was a teenager, I would have loved a story about someone who is longing to tell her parents that she’s in love with her best friend. To have an accessible storyline telling me that I wasn’t the odd one out when I did not understand the Twilight-hype about being «Team Jacob» or «Team Edward» would have been utterly invaluable to me. As it turns out, I was about a decade too early to have this need met: In the last couple of years, there has been an outright surge of queer YA books, a huge improvement for queer teenagers today. Still, as an adult I often must make the decision between reading a story that depicts a love interest I can identify with or having a wider and more interesting array of stories available to me.

Even new literature that openly calls itself queer is niche today. While girls and women are encouraged in their attraction to men by countless stories from their first crush into adulthood, we seek this same validation in vain when we are attracted to women. I am past the point of needing encouragement to come out to my family, but I still want stories that normalize relationships like mine.
And so, the bookstore my girlfriend was at also did not carry any modern literature openly declared as queer, because even now this still means the same as declaring it as non-mainstream. Dickinson, with her well-established place in English poetry, would have been mainstream enough. Did my girlfriend, who was also just seeking a story that mirrored us, miss out on being handed Dickinson because of an ongoing debate about her sexuality? Because whoever filed the ISBN number in the system the bookstore was using did not want to be insensitive to academic issues, and did therefore not register Dickinson under «queer» as well as «poetry»? It is possible, but highly unlikely.


Are the stories that are like ours simply too well hidden? Is there a hidden reflection buried in lost book pages, waiting for someone to uncover a perfect depiction of us, of me, in another time?
A millennium or two before Dickinson, another famous poet wrote:

That man to me seems equal to the gods,
The man who sits opposite you
And close by listens
To your sweet voice
And your enticing laughter –
That indeed has stirred up the heart in my breast.
For whenever I look at you even briefly I can no longer say a single thing. 

Sappho, who scholars estimate to have lived in Ancient Greece from 630-570 BCE, describes a familiar feeling in the quoted «poem 31». I can recognize myself easily in the few fragments of her poetry that archeologists and literary scholars keep finding and analyzing. There is no doubt in most analyses of the presented excerpt that these lines describe the painful and awkward situation of sitting at a table with a girl and her male lover while being in love with the girl who is probably oblivious to the poet’s feelings.

Surely, the man at the bookstore could have handed my girlfriend a nicely bound collection of Sappho’s fragments. Why didn’t he?
The second attempt of answering the question of a lack of historical queer books is not as comforting as the first one. Taking Sappho as an example, we see that in her biographies written in the Hellenistic period, already several hundred years after her death, she is said to have been «irregular in her ways and a woman-lover». Through ancient and medieval times, the understanding of sex and gender resulted in the presentation of Sappho as a «wanton woman», who by today’s standards might well have been considered queer. However, the fact that she had any erotic desires expressed in her poems was so unusual in itself that the focus of who these feelings were about was entirely secondary.

It was only in Victorian times, which saw the rise of today’s idea of traditional gender roles, when scholars saw the need to erase the alluded aspect of Sappho being a «woman-lover» altogether. It did not fit with the preferred role of the quiet, innocent and soft homemaker women were meant to occupy in the social order of the 19th century. It is presumably for this reason that around the time, the legend of Sappho throwing herself off a deadly cliff for her male love interest Phaon was strengthened. And Sappho did in fact write a poem in which a female narrator pines for a man named Phaon and wants to throw herself off a cliff because he does not reciprocate her feelings. The autobiographical relevance is however still debated, as regardless of the reality of Phaon or Sappho’s feelings for him, her cause of death is still unknown today, which makes this speculation based on a poem anything from far-fetched to outrageous.
Either way, the Victorians emphasized the Phaon angle, as well as the theory that two of Sappho’s poems that clearly address a woman were written for her presumed daughter. And so the sexuality of the woman whose very name is now used to describe women who love other women was erased for a good two centuries.

This is especially astonishing considering the fact that the controversy surrounding her sexuality was so well-accepted in ancient times that in a 10th century encyclopedia, she is registered to have been married to Kerkylas of Andros. This is clearly a tongue-in-cheek reference to the topic before us: Andros comes from the Greek word aner meaning «man», and Kerkylas, stemming from the Greek word kerkos, refers to the word “penis”, translating the name of her registered husband to «Penis of Man».
In addition to this anecdote, the words «lesbian» and «sapphic» both show how well established this discussion must have been in earlier time periods: Even though the meaning might have changed somewhat over time, some sort of controversy surrounding Sappho’s sexuality has remained in the collective consciousness. The details of earlier periods using the two words grow hazy, as linguistic history often does, but an early medieval reference tells us that «lesbian» is used as a synonym for «women who like having sex». From there it moves unseen throughout history, before both «sapphic», stemming from her name, and «lesbian», referring to her home Lesbos, show up again in the 20th century. They are now the primary words used to talk about woman who are attracted to other women today, showing up every two weeks or so on my very own tongue in varying degrees of delicacy.

We might be tempted to think that the discussion surrounding Sappho’s sexuality has long ceased since the Victorians tried to erase what one might call her queerness, and that since then, a reclaiming of her writing through queer scholars and the broader community of queer women has taken place. This is true. We took the labels and the meanings of her poems and claimed it as ours, as part of our history of where we come from. So deep ran this need for identity that we stayed forever in her wake, naming ourselves after her.
However, in the light of Sappho not having today’s understanding of gender and sexuality in her time either, the thought of a peaceful scholarship celebrating an early queer Sappho is of course also very far from the truth: Just like with Emily Dickinson, Sappho’s own understanding of her sexuality can’t be known to us today. Even though she is better or even best established as part of a queer canon today, we can never know if Sappho herself would have joined in the celebration of calling herself «sapphic» or even a «lesbian», even if I, as well as many others, would be left at a loss for what to call myself without these terms.

However, both Sappho and Dickinson carry enough of a suggestion of being queer in some way that scholars and historians at different times felt that aspects of their writing must be gone.
This not only happened in the form of stressing already existing stories like Sappho’s Phaon poem, but also in the form of actions that want no other name than erasure.
In Sappho’s case, it happened by the way of some scholars in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries switching the female pronouns she used in her poetry to male ones and chalking it up to a spelling error she allegedly made again and again and again. Countless fragments of hers were published with male pronouns at the time, making it more difficult to establish the originals once more in the 20th century.
In Emily Dickinson’s case, the deletion of her possible queerness happened in an even more prosaic way: After her death, Dickinson’s brother and his mistress (not his wife Susan, mind you) took a pair of scissors and cut Susan’s name out of many of the letters she had written to her, a strange testimony to the unwantedness of anything other than a woman loving a man, and to the hole this leaves us with now.

It is both through and despite of the cut-out names, the half-truths and the suspected stories that we come back to the man in the bookstore negating my girlfriend’s wish for a queer story, even though they both know there should be one. Inaddition to the new stories and literature about us, queer women are in need of a history of their own, where we can find ourselves reflected in earlier times and know where we come from. And so I believe that we should claim these stories as ours, knowing that perhaps they aren’t quite true, or that they can’t be the same kind of truth we perceive today. Bowing down to pure necessity, I’m willing to accept the incompleteness of this past, as long as it means that I, too, have one.
There are enough indelible and just enough tangible things to show that in all likelihood, both Dickinson and Sappho would have appreciated to know that there are others like them, however they thought about their sexuality, and that they are part of something that lasts longer than a cut out name in a letter.

I tell you
Someone will remember us

Even in another time

Writes Sappho in an incomplete fragment we have of hers. Looking back in this half-true light, I hope she is right.