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Book Review: The Complete Poems of Sappho

Published January 31, 2013 by pipsqueak
complete-poems-sappho-willis-barnstone-paperback-cover-art

sappho no no no don’t hide we love you

My first exposure to Sappho was when I picked her as the subject of my Famous Ancient Greeks presentation in sixth grade. My most salient memory of this presentation was asking my teacher in a whisper before the presentation:

“Should I tell the class that she was a lesbian?

Her answer, accompanied by smirk: “It depends. Do you think they can handle it?”

(I didn’t.)

I do remember that her poems seemed pretty dry and nonsensical. Part of this I blame on the fact that only fragments remain of most of her work. But the other problem was that the language was boooorrrrriiiiiingg. It was like fake Shakespeare. This, to me, is tragic. Nothing detracts more from intimate loveliness and honesty than unnecessarily grand language. The truth of the poem gets weighed down and drowned by large words. It’s sad.

Seven years later, my dear friend gave me a copy of The Complete Poems of Sappho, translated by Willis Barnstone. She was very, very excited about this edition. So were the people who wrote testimonials in the front of the book.

“If there is any final justice, which there probably isn’t, the world of letters would erect a monument of Willis Barnstone and strew it with fresh wildflowers ever day.” – Jim Harrison

“…this is the book of Sappho you want on your bedside table.” – David St. John

And although these conjured hilarious images of venerable writers capering around in togas and throwing petals onto “The Complete Poems of Sappho” and/or snuggling with “The Complete Poems of Sappho” before bed every night, they were right. It’s a damn good collection of poetry.

I won’t try to wax lyrical overmuch about Sappho, because there are a zillion academics and published authors who have done it better. Instead, I’ll share a few poems that really hit me in the feels. And oh man, there are so many to choose from.

from the greek word for feels, φιλία (philia)

greek root: pheeeeelia

What is it about Sappho? On the surface, there are many things that make her remarkable. The first real prolific women writer, almost certainly queer, and the probably victim of book burnings and the erosion of time. What remains of her work is exquisite fragments.

And then there’s the fact that no one really knows what she looks like. Barnstone’s book illuminated her life as fully as he can, providing details and popular opinion about her appearance, sexuality, and family life. Although it’s fun to try to put her poems into the context of her life, a lot of her charm is in her mystery.

Also, that means everyone comes up with a different idea of what she looked like. Most artists decided that she was probably super hot. The Victorians made my favorite Sappho: Exasperated Fauxhawk Sappho.

apparently the gay-girl faux-hawk goes way back

swoon

Here are a few of my favorite poems from Barnstone’s translations. I picked these because they were especially potent to me. Sappho’s forte is transmitting distilled emotion in just a few words.

Abuse

Often

those

I treat well are just the ones

who most harm me

vainly

You I want

to suffer

In me

I know it

Ugh, who doesn’t know this? There are those people who hurt you and you cut them out of your life, there are those people that don’t really challenge you, and then there are those that cause you pain but have some astounding other qualities so you take them in anyway. On the other hand, you could read this poem as an example of someone in an unhealthy relationship, à la “Love The Way You Lie.” There are four missing lines between the first and second stanzas, so the reader can fill in the gaps for whatever fits them.

Paralysis

Sweet mother, now I cannot work the loom

Sweet Afroditi broke me with longing for a boy

Ah, longing for a boy/girl/person! All-consuming crushes happen to everyone, even enigmatic greek poetesses.  Weaving? Ha! You have a crush, which requires 85% of your useable headspace to be devoted to reliving small conversations and mentally murmuring their name and being shocked by how cute their nose is. You’re in no condition to do… loom stuff. Sappho gets it.

A Ring

Crazy woman

Why are you bragging to me about a ring?

I love this one because it’s saucy. Saucy Sappho is the coolest. She also delivers poetic burns to her brothers, when they are acting like idiots, and to some of her immature ladyfriends. This is a fragment, and I can only imagine the incredible rant that must have followed those opening lines.

"Gorgo I love you but mmmmgurl you need to stop"

“Girl I love you but you are a total troglos”

No Oblivion

Someone, I tell you, in another time

will remember us

I love this Sappho. This poem feels like a conversation, like she has put her hand on my shoulder. She’s so sweet, reassuring the reader that nothing is lost. In her case, it’s true. We’ll be enjoying Sappho forever, even though she’s been in the Elysian Fields for the last few milleniums.

I’m Gonna Pop Some Tags (or why Thrift Shopping is fun, smart, and a force for good in the world)

Published January 28, 2013 by pipsqueak

Macklemore, the irrepressible newcomer to the airwaves, has done the radio-listening demographic a great service. With his song Thrift Shop, not only has he created a zingy little song, he has brought the fabulous pastime that is Thrift Shopping into the front of the collective consciousness.

 this is fucking awesome thrift shop

Here’s a brief list of reasons why you, my intelligent and attractive reader, should be heading down to your local Goodwill/Salvation Army/St. Vincent DePaul’s stat:

1. Obviously there are always some terrible falling-apart clothes at any secondhand shop, but here’s the thing about cheap clothes that you find at a Mall. Let’s take, for example, Forever 21. It’s great because it’s cheap. But half the clothes I got from them start to fray at the seams and otherwise betray their shoddy make within a few weeks. The influx of mass-produced factory-made clothing has been good news for those who only have $5 and really, really want a neon yellow stripe halter top.

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or people who want to emulate their Teen Talk “Math Class Is Tough” Barbie

But it’s bad news for clothes. Good clothes. Durable clothes. Clothes that you have long enough to grow a sentimental attachment too. And due to the nature of secondhand clothing stores, many of the clothes there are probably made from an earlier time, when clothing was made more durably. And it’s still cheaper than Forever 21.

2. Hilarious Weird Clothes That You Will Never Find Anywhere Else

but shit, it was 99 cents!

Here is an abridged list of cool shit I’ve gotten at thrift stores:

  • tricolored sequined high heels
  • red kneelength leather “where in the world is Carmen Sandiego” coat
  • several of the coziest Fair Isle sweaters I’ve ever seen
  • a Greek Goddess style coin belt
  • flannels. Gorgeous cozy heaps of flannels

And I’m sure you will find many bizarre and unique things.

3. Sales

Due to the charitable nature of many thrift shops + the wide variations in quality of their products, many secondhand clothing stores are prone to really good sales, the likes of which you would never find in a modern mall. Like the “Everything (purple/blue/black/yellow) is 50% off!” day. Or “Everything in the entire store is a dollar!” day.

One of my very savvy friends happened upon a St. Vincent dePaul’s during a “Dollar Day” and came away with fifty things. For weeks after the sale, she would come up to me and indicate a pair of moccasins or a sturdy wool coat and say, “it was a dollar,” her eyes wide with the infinite wonder of the universe.

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and in that moment, i swear there were infinite brocade vests

4. my fourth and most compelling reason is that thanks to Macklemore you now have the best pump-up song for going Thrift Shopping EVER.

your excellent rhymes and brocade puppy vests are an inspiration to us all

your excellent rhymes and puppy vests are an inspiration to us all

Objectifying Men (or: equal opportunity HipstaLips)

Published January 22, 2013 by pipsqueak

There’s a very common image theme going on in what is affectionately known as “The Hipster Blogs.” It’s a girl’s lower face, usually with some sexy lip-biting or kissy-face going on. I like to call it HipstaLips.

(source)

(source)kate upton lips

(source)

Girls are pretty, girly lips are pretty, and sexy mouth things are sexy. It’s fun.

This type of image is certainly objectification. It’s presenting one part of the human body out of context, and, like most objectifying images, HipstaLips is mostly a female phenomenon.

(For those of you who just said: NO MEN ARE OBJECTIFIED ALL THE TIME, JUST LOOK AT ALL THE HOT MUSCLEBOUND HUNKS IN ADS/TV/MAGIC MIKE: That’s not the same. It’s usually more of a  power fantasy gratification then an attempt to be sexually appealing to women.)

Anyway, cue image of me, tumbling down the rabbithole of tumblr, when I come across this:

It’s our old friend HipstaLips! With a CIS DUDE MOUTH! I was surprised because I’d never seen anything like it before, and then I was surprised at my surprise.

Is it objectification? I would say yes. It’s focusing on one part of the body, not the entire human. Is  this sexist? No. This is a tiny phosphorescent plankton floating in a vast sea of Female HipstaLips.

And you know what? I think it’s refreshing to see this genre of sexy-lip-emphasis with a male subject. Although it’s not hard to find pictures of ginormous muscledudes, this sort of imagery is rare. And judging by the number of notes on the thing (33,000+ at time of posting) and the prevalent gender of tumblr users, it’s something many women would like to see more of.

Jeff Mangum emerges from his cave, makes everyone cry

Published January 18, 2013 by pipsqueak

Jeff Mangum, renowned frontman of Neutral Milk Hotel, recently emerged from his hiatus for one last tour. Luckily for his fanbase here at IU, he stopped by Bloomington’s most adorably-named theater, the Buskirk-Chumley, to give a (mostly) solo acoustic performance.

don’t be fooled by the silly name, this place is PUNK ROCK!!!111

Jeff Mangum took the stage wearing a pale yellow yoke sweater, drab green trousers, floppy hat, and a fiercely fluffy white-streaked beard + ‘burns. He looked a little like a wandering hermit, but an endearing one, possibly one that could have been conceptualized by Wes Anderson. He sat on a black chair on an undecorated stage, surrounded by water bottles. He pulled out throat spray and spat off to the side on the stage between most songs. During the performance of the first song, “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 1,” he repeatedly requested the sound mixer to tweak the levels (“Twoooo headed boy littlemoreguitarpleaseKevin there’s no reason to grieve”). Mangum did not seem to be interesting in putting on a performative persona. That was fine. No one was there to see a performative persona.

the always-eccentric Mangum

This isn’t to say that he was unprofessional. He just lacked the self-assured zeal for attention of other performers.  Some bands get on stage and eat up the audience’s attention, frolicking like sugarhigh children in the glow. It kind of looked like Jeff Mangum had made an uneasy impasse with the music industry, like he loved playing his music just enough to put up with the performative baloney that it entailed, but not enough to wear sparkle pants.

not pictured: jeff mangum

For some context on the demographics at this concert: I am what I would call an Entry-Level Jeff Mangum fan. I listened to the album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea obsessively during high school. I cried when Mangum sang about the day we will die and our ashes will fly. Mangum’s concert at the Buskirk-Chumley made it very clear to me that there are fans like me, and then there’s the Yelling Fans. Many listeners’ enthusiasm ended up straddling the line between “affectionate” and “sexual harassment.” Here is a list of things fans yelled at Jeff Mangum during song breaks:

  • WE LOVE YOU
  • I LOVE YOU
  • COME ON BLOOMINGTON WE CAN TREAT HIM BETTER THAN THIS
  • (in response to the above) SHUT UP
  • GUYS STOP YOU’RE GONNA FREAK HIM OUT
  • JEFF MANGUM YOU MY N***AAAA
  • DONT BE NERVOUS! (in response to a moment of hesitation from Mangum)
  • JUST PICTURE US NAKED!
  • …WE’RE PICTURING YOU NAKED
  • DO YOU WANT TO GET ICE CREAM WITH ME AFTER THE SHOW?

…to which Mangum murmured in reply, “No thanks. I don’t need ice cream.” This polite acknowledgment elicited hollers and clapping. But then, so did everything Jeff Mangum did. This audience was a cult audience, in all its awkward, overenthusiastic, over-sharing glory.

What is it about Neutral Milk Hotel, and Jeff Mangum in particular, that inspires such ardent enthusiasm? Part of the frenzy was certainly induced by the rarity of the performance. Mangum has always had an air of elusiveness, which was made concrete by his sudden and complete retreat from the music industry. There was still a miraculous feeling to the fact that this man was on stage before us.

But there’s also an innate quality to NMH’s music that still attracts listeners 15 years after Aeroplane’s release. There’s something transcendental in the combination of unrestrained instrumentation, Mangum’s melodious howl, and the lyrics themselves. Aeroplane views tragedy through a lens of beauty, transforming death and suffering into bizarre, gentle poetry. Mangum is of the singer-songwriter poet class. It doesn’t matter that his singing voice isn’t a classical pop or rock voice. The point of NMH isn’t to be stylish or mind-numbing music. In Mangum’s words, “The music wasn’t just there for entertainment: we were trying to create some sort of change.” (source)

the drum-head salute

The songs were mostly classics, including many of the best songs from Neutral Milk Hotel’s small discography. There were whoops of recognition from the audience within the first few chords of most songs.  A horn player from Briars of North America, an opening band, joined Mangum for a few songs.  Mangum took the stage again after a several minutes of disorganized clapping evolved into the universally-recognized synchronized “encore” clap:

“CLAP… CLAP… CLAP. CLAP. CLAPCLAPCLAP clapclapclapclapclapwefdsbjmn,qewbjfdsake”

And then Jeff Mangum trudged back on stage, picked up a burnished guitar, and told his best story. It’s a sad one, about a beautiful face and a place that is circling all round the sun.

Philosophy Club Part 2 (or: you can bring a philosophy major to Pizza but you can’t make him think)

Published January 15, 2013 by pipsqueak

(this is a follow-up to Philosophy Club Part 1, easily locatable by virtue of it’s the only other post on this blog oh god I’m such a blogging baby)

Come, beloveds, travel with me to a magical room full of 18-22 year old white dudes, all very similar, but each with facial hair unique to only him! There is pizza in this room, and upon the whiteboard is the Philosoraptor, lovingly rendered in dry-erase marker.

no, seriously, stop it

Okay, now that we’re all there in our minds, eating pizza and references tired old memes…

Here a chin, there a beard, everywhere a chin beard

I previously mentioned how most of the attendees were… birds of the same feather.

chin beard/black shirt/talked about camus you know you made my ears hurt

But there were a few people who stuck out to me as remarkable, and renewed my conceptions of philosophy as a field anyone can benefit from, opposed to a pseudointellectual circle-jerk for guys with chin hair

chinbeard really

the circle of hair around my face helps me channel the flow of my wisdom

(I’m sorry I keep touching on the beard thing. Now it’s just petty, I know.)

The Outliers of Philosophy Club

Behind me sat a girl with fake-diamond ear plugs and nose studs, a powdery fake tan, dark eyemakeup, and long flat-ironed hair. From appearance alone, she didn’t scream “philosophy enthusiast.”

she’s evaluating anomalous monism right now, that’s her thinking face

She spoke with the universal Sorority Girl Drawl, but she introduced herself as a Philosophy Major. Later she said “I’m just reaaallly exciiiited to like, have a movie night, like watch The Matrix. That’s such a great movie, I love the epistemology and solipsism themes!”

There was also one (1) black guy, a soft-spoken slender guy with wire-rimmed glasses. He said he was into philosophy “just to find different ways to look at things,” a response that was remarkable amidst all the grandiloquence.

Then there was the homeless woman. She waddled in precisely on time, several large bags dangling on both arms. She was wrapped up for the weather and didn’t take off her headscarf or battered parka over the course of the meeting. Perhaps she wasn’t sure if she was going to be allowed to stay. She took two pieces of pizza and sat in the last row of seats. When we were given instructions to introduce ourselves with our major and why we came, she told us she hadn’t been in school for a long time.

“But I came here because I believe that philosophy can be very… nourishing for a person’s intellect. It can make us feel more whole, more complete as human beings.” This response drew a curt smile from the question asker.

When we were playing The Many-Brained Beast, an improv game where we constructed sentences by each contributing one word, she seemed confused. She was supposed to finish the sentence “What does philosophy do?” The words so far: “Philosophy… is… like… a… giant…”

“I don’t know,” she said. The club leaders laughed a little uneasily. “That works! Philosophy is like a giant I don’t know!”

this is gif contains the collected wisdom of philosophy club

The woman seemed lost, like this wasn’t what she came for. Later, during a group discussion of “soooooo…. what is philosophy, anyway?” she piped up once more. The room seemed uneasy with her, a bedraggled, somber interloper in a group of college kids with too much time on their hands.

“Well, Philosophy is a greek word, formed of philia and sophos.” She spoke with a tremulous reverence. It sounded like the definition touched her. “It literally means love of wisdom.”

And then another dude brought up pedophiles.

TrollFaceForm2

PEDOPHILES ARE THE FUNNIEST THING I HAVE EVER HEARD OF

In conclusion

Philosophy Club didn’t teach me a lot about philosophy. I know I’ve been pretty harsh on the group. To be fair, it was their first meeting of the year, and everyone was probably just excited to eat free pizza and then get drunk later. Still, it had a men’s club vibe not dissimilar to The School of Athens, or, say, reddit.

#bros

I’d like to study why philosophy seems to attract this very specific type of person. In the words of one person I asked:

“White guys can do philosophy during the time they spend not being oppressed by society.”

Fair enough, I guess.

Philosophy Club Part 1 (or: an anthropological study of white dudes with unique beards)

Published January 15, 2013 by pipsqueak

Ah, Philosophy. That enlightener of humankind, propelling us from our animalistic darkness and onward, ever onward, towards the noble truths of life are at last revealed! So surely something called Philosophy Club would be full of clearheaded seekers of wisdom willing to debate and discuss and argue for what they believe in?

nope

I visited the callout meeting of IU’s philosophy club for purposes of absorbing some new ideas + pizza. Here’s what actually happened:

The Minutes of the Meeting (recreated haphazardly):

7:00-7:10 – introductions + people trickling in late

7:10-7:13 – We were told that as a surprise, Don LaFontaine (of movie-trailer voiceover fame) was going to introduce philosophy club. Everyone became confused, milled around. The lights were turned off and 2001: A Space Odyssey theme played on a tinny laptop speaker.

An undergraduate dude with a big fluffy blonde beard got up and stood in the corner and asked us, in a rough approximation of Don LaFontaine’s grave intonations:

“Are you ready… to questions all your assumptions?

Are you ready… to deconstruct reality as you know it?

If you are, you might be ready… for Philosophy Club.”

7:13-7:30 –  explaining what Philosophy Club is, strange improve game involving the organizers of the club ad libbing answers to questions by each saying one word at a time, resulting in sentences that didn’t make sense (but were certainly quite droll in their spontaneous silliness!)

7:30-7:40 – more introductions because approximately 20 people sauntered in late

7:40-7:59 – small groups, discussion of the question “What is Philosophy to You?”

8:00 – abrupt adjournment of Philosophy Club, retreat of most members to after-party (like Philosophy Club, but at an apartment so there can be alcohol)

The Philosophy Clubbies:

Around forty people showed up to the meeting. Most of them, with a few interesting exceptions, were woefully similar. I’m going to make a generalization and call this person-type Philosophy Phil. 70% of Philosophy Club were PhiPhils.

The hallmark of a Philosophy Phil:

  • philosophy major or minor
  • caucasian as all get-out
  • unkempt beard thing OR stringy goatee. This element is very important to PhiPhil’s physical appearance, and a source of great pride. Beards were mentioned con frequencia at Philosophy Club. I don’t know why, maybe a performing hypermasculinity thing?
  • favorite animal is wolf
  • bonus: t-shirt with philosophy pun on it, ie:
Image

although you may wish you kould

  • “The meaning of life is… BANANAS!!!! LOL THAT WAS AN EXCELLENT BIT OF RANDOM JAPERY! HO HO HO!”
  • and lastly, a deep love of speaking at length and with an air of weary, knowing intellectualism.

Although the modern PhiPhil dominated Philosophy Club, there were a few members who were more unique. I’ll write about them tomorrow, when I don’t have my eyelids melting down my face.