Charlie on a hot black car (#9)
Not a bathroom story; or, more on Charlie's words (#11)

Autism and Poetry (1): Sappho's new poem and translating Charlie (#10)

Do not skip this post just because you just said to yourself, "I do not like poetry, I do not understand all that symbolism stuff." This post has a sad moment but I try to let Sappho do most of the talking in the pain & suffering department, so Charlie and I just have to provide the sideshow.

But Sappho? Some Greek poet--"poetess"? And wasn't she from some place called "Lesbos" and doesn't that mean-----(yes, she addressed most of her love poems to the female sex)------And isn't this blog about AUTISM?

Well. Previous to life with autism and, indeed, long before Charlie was born, all that time I now spend idling at Toys 'R' Us as Charlie checks out the selection of Wiggles DVDs and Barney CDs (and tries to get me to buy the ones he already has) or waiting with him in line for the low-dive, was taken up reading Greek and Latin poetry and philosophy and some other stuff. University libraries' shelves sag with commentaries, interpretations, and historical-cultural-socio-political accounts of Sappho, Simonides, Catullus, Virgil. Scholars around the world look at a few lines of ancient Greek, copied onto a bit of wrapping for an Egyptian mummy, and pour out their speculations. "This apple signifies"--"the evidence for it being a dative of reference is thus"--"The delicate shift to aorist subjunctive is indicative of"----I was a grammar girl, without the tan I now sport courtesy of my boy. All those hours, days, weeks, years spent lugging around my Greek dictionary and the Smythe grammar have given me a way to translate Charlie's language. For instance:

"Daddy back car, Daddy here, Daddy cummin home, Daddy, Daddy, great job Howie, great job yea!" Pause, then "Wowos! Arielah! Stella. Stelllllla!"

This means: "Daddy drives the black car, I want Daddy here, Daddy is coming home, Daddy, Daddy, you did a great job Hal, great job, yea! I want the photos of Arielah and Stella. Stellllla!"

That's how Charlie talks, in snatches of phrases; in fragments. What he has to say and what I have to say about it are in a ratio of 1 to 100 if not 1 to 1000, 1 to 1,000,000. That's about the ratio of a fragment of the Greek poet Sappho's writing, compared to the amount of scholarly, academic research, books and articles about one of her poems. Sappho lived in the 6th century BC; we have 264 fragments--some just a few words, 3 near-complete poems--by her: "I long and seek after" (fr. 36), "O for Adonis" (fr. 168), "honeyvoiced" (fr. 185).

Attempts to decipher Sappho's fragmented poetry remind me of trying to understand Charlie, whose speech is severely delayed. This is brought home when we are in a public place and he, a tall boy standing past my shoulder, speaks: one word that has no obvious reference to the immediate environment ("beach house"); or, with "I want" or "Go to" tacked on the front, the makings of a sentence ("go to home house"). With Jim and me, he is much more chatty and can erupt into strings of words--nouns, usually ("white rice hot dog oranges fries shrimp, we'll be back beach house, we'll be back to beach house"; Charlie struggles to express abstract concepts in language. Sometimes all he can do is look at me, face increasingly stricken, and cry out "I want!". And while he understand my "what," he says, over and over, "I want. I want. I want! MOMMY I WANT." He hasn't learned the word for what he wants because we haven't figured out what he wants and we haven't taught him the word and how to say it.

As Charlie has gotten older, sometimes there's one too many "I want" 's and he's on all fours on the floor and hits his head, bang. Bang.

"My heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me," says Sappho in her just-discovered poem, and her words strike a chord deep in me. She continues: "that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns. / This state I oft bemoan; but what’s to do? / Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way."

Figuring out, as I did after several weeks of hearing "wowos" and thinking about what word has a double /o/ sound--aha! I said to myself one day, Charlie's talking about "PHOTOS!!!!!!!!"--pictures of his former therapists and teachers--is worth a prize from the Muses. Sappho's poetry and Charlie when he's wide-eyed like a deer in the headlights, trying to tell you something---they're both, if I may invoke the Replacements who also know a few things about pain and suffering, sadly beautiful.

  • A new Sappho poem

  • Sadly Beautiful lyrics
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