The recently renewed discussion over renaming Dundas Street in downtown Toronto is a reminder that naming, in our entrenched settler-colonial mindset, is a form of staking claim by transposing the old world onto the new. Naming is a birth, a step through the threshold of permanence, particularly when it comes to naming a location around which people will later orient their existence, particularly when the name given is as charged as Sappho.
Sarah Dowling’s new poetry collection, Entering Sappho, beckons its reader much like the sign outside of Sappho, Washington, next to which “generations of queers […] paused […] to photograph themselves.” Stylistically capturing the sense of rupture found in Sappho’s poems while simultaneously making use of the cinematic technique of montage in the shift through histories and narratives, Entering Sappho is an unravelling of the past, language, and the body. We are invited into Dowling’s poems on the premise of discovery, no different from the curiosity responsible for “One Sappho, only / One Sappho, just this / One Sappho,” among numerous other settlements with Greek and Roman names, that are sprinkled across the United States. Entering Sappho is more than an attempt to reconstruct the town’s history; the poems probe the waters of corporeality as they write their own, queer body.
Dowling’s Sappho is a terrifying, hostile place. The “loggers and their families [who] shot / deer, bear, elk, and / some girl in the area” and the unidentified “I” that is “al- / ways watching – no – […] wandering / at the side of the road” reveal only the topmost surface of the ghostly presences that inhabit the fictional and historic layers of the town. Some of these presences are very much corporeal but rendered into a state of barely existing by their inability to fit into the narrative of the colonizing, heteronormative vision of the world. “You may forget that I’m a big strong boy, you / forget that I had many dolls,” the speaker says in “Us,” a reminder tinged with an edge of mournful self-elegy.
We enter Entering Sappho on the promise of haunting. This sensation is only heightened throughout the collection as the poems move from historical to critical in nature. In “Oral History,” a chorus of selves seem to talk over each other, while the beginning of “These Things Now for My Companions / I Shall Sing Beautifully” struck me as the voice of the town, less in the sense of a personification and more as a way of engaging with its own history, raising the question: is a town an “it”? Similarly, the invocation in “This Word: I Want,” the pleas to “tell us” and “teach us” is oracular, a plea to a higher being that, in Dowling’s poems, echoes off the walls of history and ricochets back, until the “us” becomes the supplicant and the deity. Entering Sappho is a reminder of “our vicious greed for beauty,” which Dowling demonstrates cannot be compared to the potential beauty that is only possible if we confront and extinguish the colonial hunger that continues to burn.
Margaryta Golovchenko is a settler-immigrant, poet, critic, and academic based in Tkaronto/Toronto, Treaty 13 and Williams Treaty territory. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks and is currently completing her MA in art history and curatorial studies at York University.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.