That's So Gorgo
Reading Sappho and also a memoir of the seventh grade
[of youthshaking Eros
and with wine, the goat
In this edition, two books I enjoyed immensely, across a gap of 27 centuries and at least two Mötley Crüe albums: If Not, Winter, Anne Carson’s translation of every-ass word that remains to us from Sappho, and Kevin Brockmeier’s A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade, which does what it says on the tin.
Winter is just a joy, perfectly suffused with both ardor and irony. Carson loves this stuff—loves the poems we have a good chunk of,
Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot
and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing on the black earth. But I say it is
what you love.
loves Eros amachanon like Tom Stoppard, loves the honey and the honeybee. But loves, also, the gaps and blanks. Loves the feeling of time pulling apart, threads in the thick veil separating just for an instant, so we can glimpse the maidens on the mountains, who beat their breasts and mourn a god who lived for them; for us, long dead. Anne Carson loves the nouns by which we learn what that world was made of: headbinder, crown, breast, black earth, gold, bridegroom, chickpeas, purple.
And loves how ridiculous these fragments become, torn from their context. She knows what a strange project it is to create a popular edition of Sappho (I got this from the San Jose public library) that includes pages with nothing on them but,
to those who have quite had their fill
(That one is like that because we only know of its existence due to a later grammarian who is “interested in the way Gorgo’s name declines.”) I read a couple hundred pages of this book in the interstices of a Little League game. It’s spellbinding! It’s weird, it truly is fragmented, and it will make you laugh, not at Sappho or even at yourself but at time.
Filmstrip is an almost entirely literary-realist memoir reconstruction of one uneventful/watershed year in the life of its author. Before middle school, sometimes you got into fights with friends or got embarrassed by adults for your ignorance, but you didn’t feel all the time as if everyone else had the code book, everybody else had read the run-through and knew that when you see the Cyclops you yell “Ulysses!” and when you get the lump of coal you put it in the washing machine and it becomes a diamond. (God bless every one of you who got those references. May you never be eaten by a grue.) Middle school, as Brockmeier remembers it, is the time when you became aware of social codes as a thing: a freestanding object which you could either grasp or, in the case of the kind of people who write literary fiction, fail to grasp. There are jokes that will land, and jokes that will not land, and there is some rule for this but you haven’t discovered it yet. (This book is, among other things, a treatise on how there isn’t a rule for which jokes land. It is all just social power and vibes.) One time, my best friend stopped speaking to me and I didn’t know why. So I called her up and she still wouldn’t speak to me. So we stayed on the phone like that, completely silent, for like forever, until I started singing Pink Floyd’s “On the Turning Away,” and by the time I had finished it, (my memory is) we were speaking again. And I still don’t remember why any of that happened!
This feeling of not yet knowing which things are normal, and therefore right, even extends to the book’s imagery, which is novel and tactile in a way that I loved: “A car goes roaring down the street toward the cowboy bar. Its headlights brighten the window. Then the glass seems to hitch in its frame, and the brightness pops loose, curving and flashing across the ceiling before it vanishes behind the dresser. He has missed his chance, his one chance, to dive through it and find out where it would have taken him.”
The book is a page-turner, even though the only things that happen come out of the blue. None of the things you think will be big set-pieces really turn into anything. And that, too, feels very true to life, and to the way we retain in memory events whose real unfolding we will not understand for a long time: If a novel included the sequence where Kevin comes to school in blackface (THIS HAPPENS) because they’re supposed to dress up as other students, and he picks the only Black kid in the school, there would be some kind of confrontation or consequences. Instead, Kevin sees something that he doesn’t understand. He records it for later, and this book gives us only what he saw then, not his later reflections on it.
Brockmeier moves easily between big moments and the texture of life: coming home and drinking a Little Hug, and maybe wondering if it is not cool anymore to drink Little Hugs; waiting for time to pass; making astonishingly stupid jokes, I love how exactly Brockmeier captures the nature of middle-school humor; the very first, confusing symptoms of puberty, which maybe is a disease???
And there’s one departure from realist conventions, which is so strange and perfect that I will not describe it for you. I’ll only say that it captures a lot about the seventh-grade desire to disappear, and the inability to imagine adulthood. These are both things that have come up in extremely online discussions of how extremely online today’s young people are: the 11-year-old kid who told the New York Times, “When I’m online, I can mute myself, and they can’t really see me. I can’t just mute myself in real life.” I do not think social media is good for kids, on balance. It can be a lifeline for some—the kids for whom online interaction replaces not IRL interaction but total silence. But imho social media is subtly different (the addiction-by-design; the likes) from those endless conversations I’d have after school on the kitchen phone, using code to talk about things I didn’t want my parents to hear. Anyway, my point here is just that kids don’t want to mute themselves because of the TikToks and the Instas and the GLAVIN. They want to mute themselves because they are in seventh grade.
Kevin’s a Christian kid at a Christian school, and yet he approaches the world as a puzzle and not as mystery—except for that one inbreaking from beyond the real. I think a lot of you well-intentioned Christian parents think you can give your kids the ongoing immersion in mystery that you never had at their age, but it’s very easy for mystery to become just furniture and ego. Mystery is elusive and kids will discover it on their own terms—probably only when they need it desperately.
Some short movie notes: Let the Fire Burn, Losing Ground, Pray Away, and Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Pink Floyd, “In the Flesh?” One time in seventh (?) grade I sang part of this to a girl on the playground because I thought she sucked. She was a total Gorgo! In fact she was normal and baffled, and I swiftly realized that I had been the weird one….
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School lockers via Pixabay and used under a Creative Commons license.