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Thea Prieto writes and edits for Poets & Writers, Propeller Magazine, Portland Review, and The Gravity of the Thing. Her writing also appears in print or online at Entropy Magazine, Yalobusha Review, The Masters Review, and elsewhere. To learn more, visit theaprieto.com.

Mothers of the Future

Corbis Historical / Getty

Thea Prieto | Longreads | February 2019 | 9 minutes (2,399 words)


“I got annihilated as a natural, as the real deal, as her truest, most important poem, her Lie Box. But she stuffed some torn-up papyrus in a crocodile; she taught me how to look for shards of a vase with a few words on it and piece together a story.”

—Sophia Shalmiyev, Mother Winter


When Anne Carson translated every tantalizingly incomplete snippet of Sappho’s poetry in If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, she was continuing a centuries-long project: the excavation of our poetic fossils. In Carson’s translation, Sappo’s fragments are littered with empty brackets, which box off the blank spaces where words used to be, giving a reader the translator’s experience of “the free space of imaginal adventure… the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes.” These ancient relics of love and longing contain voids that can nowadays only be filled in, painstakingly, by imaginative poets and scholars; or by archaeologists lucky enough to exhume new slivers of Sappho’s poetry from antique garbage: cartonnage in mummy cases, packing for vases, or stuffing in mummified crocodile carcasses. “There can be no periods at the end of Sappho’s translations,” writes Sophia Shalmiyev in her debut memoir Mother Winter, “because she is forever unfinished business to us.”

In Mother Winter (Simon & Schuster, 2019), Shalmiyev describes many women who are yet unfinished business, most poignantly her own estranged mother. In 1978, in Leningrad — once and now again called Saint Petersburg — Shalmiyev was born to a Russian mother and an Azerbaijani father. Widespread anti-Semitism drove her father to emigrate to America with his daughter, leaving Shalmiyev’s alcoholic mother, Elena, behind. From age eleven onward, Shalmiyev traveled new and unsafe worlds, navigating different cultures and subcultures, searching motherless for words to define her grief. Mother Winter is the result of her searching, a language of loss and longing that depicts in lyrical, fragmented vignettes her painful journeys, examining what it means to fill absences with words, like stuffing a crocodile with fragments of poetry. Read more…