Poets Online Archive
How Memory Works
March 2005

"This is How Memory Works" is from Patricia Hampl's 1983 collection, Resort (Carnegie Mellon University Press).

When I first read this poem, I immediately thought of a scene in the film Citizen Kane. One of my favorite parts is when Mr. Bernstein talks to one of the investigating reporters.

Bernstein says, "A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since, that I haven't thought of that girl."

Maybe it was because I lived in Jersey when I saw the film; maybe it was because I thought I had seen several my own girls-in-white-dresses; maybe it was because I was fifteen years old - but I understood what he meant.

That whole film is about trying to figure out what memory of Kane's triggered "Rosebud", his dying word. (I'm still convinced after many viewings that no one ever heard him say Rosebud, but...)  The reporters never figure it out (and I won't spoil it for you here) and they conclude that no word can sum up a man's life.

Poet Tess Gallagher said that one of her obsessions is "how memory works or doesn't work in the creating of what matters in our lives."

If I asked you to write a poem about memory, you could pull almost any poem from your file. It's not only the stuff of dreams, but the stuff of many poems. So, I must ask you to write only about how memory works for you.

Is there a Rosebud in your past, or a "Proustian phenomenon" like his madeleine cookie? How does your memory work?



She is a slightly mad librarian

with a skewed catalogue

a jukebox-hogging drunkard

in a sentimental fog

high on Manhattans and lust

playing the same old song

about us, about us

and that same sick longing I own

to this day. She doesn’t know lenience,

never learned how to pray.


A sadist who shepherds me

through hallways of shame

abides in thievery, hides the names

of people I have known for years

lies in the language of love;

curses -- her vernacular of fear

makes me watch my worst home movies

while dreaming, I am stung

I wake to the iron taste of guilt on my tongue.

Patty Tomsky


In fitful bursts of nonsense now,
Like waking from a dream,
My memories reciprocate,
Like swirling coffee cream.

I catch a glimpse that’s crystal clear,
Which quickly fades to naught,
Then dramatically it reappears
With other things I’ve thought.

A taste, a smell, perhaps a sound
Will briefly take me back,
But should I grasp each one too strong
I lose the twisting track.

So must we all, at last, accept
That it’s not an image all alone,
But a combined kaleidoscope of life
That we each and every own.

Richard Millman


I have memory of the excitement
Of all scientific adventures
As Alice falling down the hole
To find  strange bottles saying drink me.

I was aware of its truth
The potential it had to be dangerous
As sticking my hand or hands
Into the hole of a marble frieze
On a Roman stone wall
Called, ‘ Boca de la Verita,'  Mouth of truth
To wonder what memory is still inside
Or could the lips of the lion close down,
Catching  my memory by action.

Excitement makes memory
Into a steeple chase merry go round
That only moves quicker and quicker
Defining the centrifugal force:
That keeps us reaching for the brass ring
Of memory which can not be caught.

Once  the twelve years of memory
In our schooling, bad and good
Are simplified into a flat graph or  grid,
Our life is drawn with a mechanical pencil
Where those who liked us
And those we hated,
And those who were an appetizer of learning
While "thems" that were a desert to learning
Place  us a spot called A or B.
Or better yet on a quadratic moving curve x,y.

I know memory is not a  shaded area of grid
That placed before our eyes
Is  is allowed  t'eclipse
The dimensions of our life.

Edward N Halperin


The doctors call it a fog
a non-sequitor falling
from the lips of a fool.

She writes it all in a book
because it doesn't work
to just try to find the right
date on the cluttered calendar.

She conjures visions of autumn
into sheaves of useless paper
and the fog rolls in to cover the words
that drift in from some troubled

Karen Kilburn


I am trying to remember what will prove my memory works.
I recognize the generic smell of wet sand and day old fish
That drifts near the river- bank miles from the ocean.
I do not have to see the grass mowed
To know I have passed mown grass.
Ah the odors, I cannot recall the odors.
Physical, kinesthetic, memories are different.
They do not yield visual recollections.
I stretch, my muscles remember, for a while.
And I feel good, for a while.
Ah the sensation, I cannot recall the sensation.
For me, affective memories are more like physical memories--
No visual qualities, but verbally driven.
The original words and later
Recollecting seductive words of appreciation.
I feel wonderful!
Still later, ah the feeling, ah the feeling,
I recall the feeling without the words.

Ellen Kaplan


It is comforting to know
my house, with its terraces and flowers, its tall sheltering elms, will
remain fixed in my mind when I walk out the door, that there is a key I
will always find to let me back in. Memory is my prompter working
behind each moment to keep my place in the world.
How terribly lonely I would be without memory, and frightened, with no
place marked for me to put down my foot and say, "here am I,"
never to be sure that when I step out the door I will find my way home

I watched that happen to Mary.
On her long meandering walks
her memory seemed to tire before she did and sit down to rest, never
getting up soon enough to make it back to her front door with her.
She was distraught, would ask strangers where she lived.
I would be distraught too. I would find no joy in living in the moment
if that were all I had, if each moment did not become memory.

Marvin Lurie


like gravity.
A force that I forget is there.
It works on attraction,
and increases and decreases
with the proximity of objects
and people.
There are equations and relationships
to explain almost all of it, but
I prefer to think that it makes
falling (from grace; in love)
the natural thing to do.

Ken Ronkowitz


All it took was the strong sunlight today after days of rain
and the smell of a fireplace outside when I stepped outside
and a breeze of spring bulbs went by all hyacinth and colors
the wind was blustery, like in the story you loved
and I went blind for a moment in all that sunlight
and a could hear birds flying in a sweep overhead,
chimes played madly while the wind pressed my back
and it felt as if someone was pressing against me
to escape the cold
and it was you.
For a moment,
it was you.

Charles Michaels


I wrote this poem
2 weeks ago
and have already
forgotten it,
just as you are
already forgetting
it. Next week
one of us
will remember
only its image
of dust left
under the chair,
which will spur
spring cleaning.
is that so bad?

Lauren Cerruto


Why do I anticipate
going places visited
for the
first time… why,
for all the
apocrypha of memory,
do you know streets…
remember names… why
do you turn
one way at this
intersection instead
of that…and then…
how can consciousness
so swiftly… can conceive
ad hoc,
this literacy of wordless
knowing… this
Braille reading
of dust thick
on shafts of light
that illuminate,
as it passes through,
a brittle
yellow page that
wafts down
from nowhere
to land
at your feet?
and how do
you account for
for recognition
of the book
this page
fell from, having
once been a gift
signed with “love
by her to you…
only to be found
misfiled, a lifetime
later, on a shelf
in some musty
close for the night?

Andrew R Cohen


Memory works through dreams
and fairy tales
the lazy pace of camel caravans
crossing the desert.

I did not just meet you.
It was in the story.
A flash of light
within the fortress
And I, a traveler, passing by,
gifted for a moment
with a magical eye
that spied the fire in the rock.

Like in all fairy stories,
the traveler stood mesmerized.
How strange
nothing happens as in fairy stories
except when touched
by memory's magic wand.

I waited for Rapunzel's golden braids
I sang soulful songs
sent up smoke signals
banged my head on the invisible gates
tried scaling the walls
until I became flat.
The lizards laughed
"These humans," they said,
"why can't they leave the walls to us?"

And all around
there was a desert growing
the moon turning
into a blank stare
there was no wind
but sharp little slaps
on the face.

Well, maybe
this is quite mundane
you, a lover
transmogrified into a husband
I, the beloved
reduced to a wife
and the invisible fortress
was between us.

But memory has a magic wand.
It works
with dreams
and fairy tales.

J. Devika

Patricia Hampl is the author of three highly acclaimed memoirs, A Romantic Education, and Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life and I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. The latter is a series of story-like recollections and essays in which she considers how she has been "enchanted or bedeviled" by autobiographical writing - her own and that of others.
She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, and three of her books have been New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Ms. Hampl lives in St. Paul, where she teaches at the University of Minnesota
Ms. Hampl says she is " writing a long essay for an anthology of American Catholic writers writing on the sacraments edited by Thomas Grady. I chose the sacrament of Penance (aka Confession or, more recently, Reconciliation). It was a fascinating project, the historical research in particular which made clear the enormous, if glacial, changes that the sacrament has made over the centuries. I'm now turning toward fiction, and working on a collection of short stories."
For an interview with Patricia Hampl in which she talks about "This is How Memory Works", go to http://www.wiredforbooks.org/patriciahampl/