A Backward Leap

When the poet Ellen Bryant Voigt spoke to a group of Hillsdale students about her time teaching poetic composition to the actor James Franco at the Warren Wilson low residency MFA program, she mentioned a poem they had studied, a cinematic oddity by American poet Robert Lowell titled “Skunk Hour.” In the poem, a speaker climbs a hill and views parked cars (“love cars” as he calls them) full of teenagers. In an off-hand way, she referred to the landscape as a “lover’s leap.” And in that one comment, she placed the poem in a profound allusive context.

The poem alludes to the poet Sappho of Lesbos, who, according to Greek myth, leapt from the white cliffs of Leucas and died upon impact with the wine-dark sea. This jump echoes through histories and geology, across the Atlantic ocean and across the poetic tradition.

The Greek poet Ovid recorded the first instance of this story. After her lover, the boatman Phaon, began to resent her, Sappho made her daedalian flight. Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of 21 epistolary poems, records the myth of Sappho. Writing from the voice of Sappho, Ovid peers into a mind contemplating the temporality of all things as Sappho yearns to preserve the recent past in which her love was alive. She would rather end her life than live with her spoiled memories.

“Phaon has carried away all that pleased you before;

Miserable me, I almost said ‘my Phaon.’

Make him return, and your singer will return also.

He gave strength to my genius; he stole it away.

Do my prayers accomplish anything, or is his rustic breast moved?

Or does his breast harden, and the west winds bear away my falling words?

[…]

At least let a cruel letter tell me in my misery,

So that I may seek my fate in Leucadian waters!”

 

The letters from the Heroides are written from the voices of mythical heroes like Theseus, Jason, or Ulysses. Save for Sappho’s letter, Sappho is a non-legendary figure. She lived from 630 to 570 BC. She composed short lyric poems and sung them while playing a lyre. Before the Parthenon, before Aristotle and Plato, she crafted poems which exist only now as fragments, collected on scraps of papyrus and etched into potsherds and cobbled together by archaeologists and translated from her lightly-metered and conversation style to conform to English poetic taste with its opaque end-rhyme. She often adopted the voices of other characters as her own and though her poem “To One False in Love” may not voice her own emotions, it can give a sense of her tempestuous emotional life which drove her toward the cliff.

O false as fair

I am forgotten, then, by thee!

Or haply on another shine

The eyes that once looked into mine

Pretence of love — all faithlessly

Out! nought I care

For such as can true love betray!

Love on, forsworn, your little day:

Ye are nought to me.

 

Ovid’s decision to include a single historical figure among the legendary figures of antique Greece indicates that Sappho’s actions and her death in the leucadian waters grew in the quotidian mind to equal the weight of the gods.

Across the Greek mainland from her birthplace on the island of Lesbos, on the island of Leucas, lie the sheer 200-foot cliffs where Sappho made her leap. The ruins of an ancient temple to Apollo at the top of the cliffs show that the site served as a place for trial by ordeal in antiquity for those accused of crimes. Accused persons would jump from the cliffs, which are nearly as tall as the Golden Gate Bridge, where the force of impact upon hitting the frigid water of the San Francisco bay kills 98 percent of jumpers. It would take 3.5 seconds for the body to hit the water after the a leap from the Leucadian cliffs. Not many of the accused would survive the fall, but those who did were rescued by boat and brought back to the temple to be acquitted of the charge.

Sappho’s decision to jump seems as if she has put her love on trial. In the last 3.5 seconds of her life she probably considered whether her if it was worth it in the end: her love, her poetry. As her braids unraveled and her hair flew wildly behind her, she spent that time in a liminal space between life and death which reflected her emotional life — physically living but lacking the will to live after the loss of her lover.

The splash of her body on the Aegean sent reverberations which resound through both poetry and legend. As A. H. Krappe wrote in his 1930 book “The Science of Folk-Lore,” “In mountainous regions it is difficult not to find a precipice from which it is fabled that some human being has leaped, a knight pursued by the enemy, or a virgin fleeing from her captor. The leap may end with disaster or the fugitive may be saved by a miracle.”

So it is no surprise that the myth has traveled over the Atlantic and has become an element of the American landscape.

Behind a ruined mansion in the Ozarks, there is a bluff that drops 250 feet into a branch which emerges from the Ha Ha Tonka spring and flows into the Niangua River. Hundreds of years before, locals say an Indian Princess and her lover leapt to their deaths.

The “1889 History of Camden County” records that Okema, the Chief of the Osages, fell in love with Winona, a Delaware Indian Princess. But Winona had pledged herself to her lover, Minetus, her kinsman. Her parents brought her to the bluff to pick her wedding bouquet. With grief welling in her heart over her unrequited love for Minetus, she put on a brave face and plucked flowers.

When Okema came to take Winona, she refused his advances out of her love for Minetus. Okema declared that Minetus must die. Winona ran back to the place where she picked her wedding bouquet. Okema pursued his prize. And when the princess arrived at the bluff, she jumped off the promontory. Her body was crushed on the rocks below the fall as Okema peered over the edge.

When Minetus arrived, he threw a tomahawk at Okema that missed and killed another of the Osages. Having lost his weapon, Minetus wrestled with Okema until they both rolled off the edge of the cliff. In seconds, their bloody corpses lay next to their beloved Winona.

She had leapt. Her lovers had followed. This story, or one like it, resounds through the American wilderness. It is Sappho’s action infused with tribalism and New World mystique.

It is a story with a clear archetype: a beautiful young Indian princess wants to marry her beloved but her parents oppose her decision, and she and her lover make the decision to take the leap together — a step off the edge into the future, a marriage of fatality.

As Mark Twain wrote in his 1883 book “Life on the Mississippi, “There are fifty Lover’s Leaps along the Mississippi from whose summit disappointed Indian girls have jumped.”

The cry of Sappho falling toward the leucadian waters echoes off of two stanzas of “Skunk Hour.” The stanzas, located in the middle of the poem, describe an interloper spying on young lovers who have parked on a ridge overlooking a sleepy New England town to watch the sun set and who have stayed long after.

One dark night,

my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;

I watched for love-cars . Lights turned down,

they lay together, hull to hull,

where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .

My mind’s not right.

A car radio bleats,

“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear

my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,

as if my hand were at its throat. . . .

I myself am hell;

nobody’s here—

 

Having stayed late to make love in the darkness of the cab, the teenagers evoke both antique and contemporary lovers. As the windows fog up from heavy breathing and hushed whispers, the lovers become a Native American princess and her lover, Romeo and Juliet, Paolo and Francesca, Sappho and Phaon. The poem is rife with allusion. In allusive context, “Skunk Hour” shows its rich historical base.

Beyond the location presented in the first stanza, the lyrics from the second stanza call to mind the traditional song “Careless Love,” made famous by the Buddy Bolden band in New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century. Though the lyrics often change in the many famous renditions of the song, the most famous version, recorded in 1925 by jazz singer Bessie Smith, begins with lines that hearken back to Sappho’s “To One False in Love.”

 

Love, oh love, oh careless love,

You fly to my head like wine,

You’ve ruined the life of many a poor girl,

And you nearly wrecked this life of mine

 

The lyrics of a song written half a century before the poem place the speaker in the same despairing mental space as Sappho as well as with the countless Indian princesses of yore. The first thought is to blame the lover, but the speaker turns and blames love itself. A rejection of love is essentially a rejection of hope, of goodness.

The final allusion of the stanzas, “I myself am hell,” brings Milton into the conversation. The line echoes book 4 of Paradise Lost in which Satan speaks of his love of pain and an act for which there is no forgiveness, and act from which no one can return.

Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;

And in the lowest deep a lower deep

Still threatning to devour me opens wide,

To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.

O then at last relent: is there no place

Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?

 

At the precipice, the speaker ponders the depths from which no person can return. Lowell drops these allusions in for readers to find and make of them what they may. The speaker is clearly depressed. He feels his life eroding before him as he gazes upon young lovers and the edge of the cliff. He contemplates the jump, if only through allusive meditation.

Unlike the simplistic poignancy of the lover’s leap myths, Sappho’s fragmentary poems, or Bessie Smith’s lyrics, Lowell’s lines are dense and seem to hook a trolling line into to historical events and poetic achievements.

A single word and a couple stanzas connects “Skunk Hour” to historic places: a state park in Missouri, the island of Lesbos and its white cliffs, and a small town in New England.

“Nobody’s here” murmurs the speaker at the end of the stanza. But that same threshold – the edge of a cliff – will always be there, and a step off may have us finding ourselves falling down the edge of white cliffs into stories we rarely consider.

Mark Naida is a senior studying English and French. 

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