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Gimme Some SAP (Sexy Ancient Poetry)

marginalia from the Book of Kells
About ten years ago, I touched the pages of an illuminated manuscript in a library in Rome. It was a moving experience. Usually, the precious artifacts preserved in museums for hundreds or thousands of years are locked away, untouchable, except by experts wearing sterile gloves. But this time, for whatever reason--maybe just because it was Rome, where such artifacts are common and life is sensual--I was allowed to touch, with my naked fingers, the soft grain of a sheet of parchment, the scraped thin hide of a living creature, complete with hair follicles visible near the edges, lovingly crafted and written over in artful script, with ink handmade from vegetable tannins, applied with quills of feather and brushes of hair, illuminated in gold leaf and the powder of precious gems.

I don't remember what the content of the book was, but I remember becoming so aware of how different the experience of creating a book or manuscript (not just reading or looking at it) must have been a thousand years ago--an art composed of skin and plants and the minerals of the earth, created by skilled artisans by the natural light of the sun or the warm glow of a smoky flame.

Back when life was short and the creation of a book took a very long time, so much more of a writer's heart and soul must have been imbued in every curling, spiny character of text.

We've all felt the difference between writing words on paper, with an ink pen or a pencil held in our callused fingers, and pounding out words fast as an electric train in the charged, blue glare of a computer screen.

The way we live, and the way we write, has such an influence on what stories we tell and the language we use. This is one reason I love to reflect on the writings of past centuries and millennia--they're so full of hot blood and fire and flowing sap.

I'll list some of my favorite findings, and I hope you will suggest some of your own to share with me. I am your virtual neighbor, so gimme some SAP! (Sexy Ancient Poetry, that is.)

My first introduction to ancient sensual text was, of course, the Song of Solomon in the Bible. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine.

Oh yes.

And the Song of Solomon's closest relation, ancient Egyptian love poetry, is so steamy that I won't even reproduce it here, in the cold light of my LCD screen. But I do recommend taking a peep if you dare.

Another fountain of painfully beautiful love poetry arose in Heian period Japan, about a thousand years ago. My husband and I used to tuck these verses in our emails to each other early in our relationship. Some of our most beloved are...

We are, you and me,
Like two pine needles
Which will dry and fall
But never separate.

You do not come
On this moonless night.
I wake wanting you.
My breasts heave and blaze.
My heart burns up.
Although I come to you constantly
over the roads of dreams,
those nights of love
are not worth one waking touch of you.
 (Ono No Komachi)

This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it as like
the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day.
 (Murasaki Shikibu) 

You and me
we live inside an egg
me, I am the white
and wrap you round with my body  
(Anonymous geisha)

Another of my most treasured texts from before the dawn of electronics is not quite so ancient--it was created around the time Shakespeare was penning his sonnets--but it comes from an early opera about ancient Rome.

"Pur ti miro" is a love duet written by librettist Busenello, set to tenderly rapturous music possibly by Monteverdi, in early 17th century Italy. The English translation is:

At you I gaze
In you I delight
You I hold
You I clasp
No more do I suffer
No more do I die
Oh my life
Oh my treasure
I am yours
You are mine
My hope
Say it now
My idol
Yes, my beloved
Yes, my heart
My life, yes

Below is a modern performance rendition of the piece. This is not my favorite performance ever, but it's kinda neat. If the countertenor sounds weird to you, that's because this piece was written for two castrati (castrated men) to sing, one in drag. Now that we don't castrate boys to sing prettier in the church choir or onstage anymore, this piece is sometimes performed by a countertenor (a man who can sing in falsetto) and a woman, or by two women. The hottest performance I've ever heard of this duet was by two young women a capella--complete with two sets of heaving bosoms, breathy gasps, adoring gazes, smoothly quickening and slowing tempo guided by each other's angelic voices--but I regret that I cannot find a video of that one. In any case, the stories behind this piece (tyrannical and murderous power couple, genital mutilation of the singers, etc.) contrasts so shockingly with the bare sweetness of the words and music that it's weirdly kink. Enjoy!

So what gets your juices flowing--from ancient, early medieval, or Renaissance sources? What distant-past text transcends the decay of antiquity and calls to your soul right now? Gimme some SAP!


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