"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.
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.
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.
A force that I forget is there.
It works on attraction,
and increases and decreases
with the proximity of objects
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.
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.
I wrote this poem
2 weeks ago
and have already
just as you are
it. Next week
one of us
only its image
of dust left
under the chair,
which will spur
is that so bad?
Why do I anticipate
going places visited
first time… why,
for all the
apocrypha of memory,
do you know streets…
remember names… why
do you turn
one way at this
of that…and then…
how can consciousness
so swiftly… can conceive
this literacy of wordless
of dust thick
on shafts of light
as it passes through,
yellow page that
at your feet?
and how do
you account for
of the book
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
YOU AND ME, THROUGH MEMORY
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.
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.
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.
and fairy tales.