Poets Online Archive
Proustian Memory
October 2005

We looked at "The Lanyard" from Billy Collins' new book, The Trouble with Poetry.  It's classic Collins being "two-toned" in his writing, as is the lanyard. It's a poem about those we can never repay and how we try and possibly fail.

One thing that surprises me in the poem is the allusion.  "No cookie nibbled by a French novelist could send one into the past more suddenly" Collins is generally not much of an allusionist. I wonder how many readers will "get" the reference and how many would just read through it. Would any search it out and discover Proust? So, we addressed Marcel Proust's madeleine cookie, which I believe was once a rather snooty literary reference that has worked its way into pop culture.

Try writing a poem that begins with or concentrates on this "Proustian Memory" experience where an unexpected re-encounter with a scent from the distant past brings forward a series of memories. ( For more on this prompt and to comment on it, see our blog at https://poetsonline.blogspot.com )

About Billy Collins: Collins was born in New York City in 1941. His poetry books include Nine Horses (Random House, 2002); Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001); Picnic, Lightning (1998); The Art of Drowning (1995), Questions About Angels (1991), and The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988). He has a CD of him reading 33of his poems, The Best Cigarette (1997). His poetry has also appeared in just about any famous periodical that matters and publishes poems. Billy Collins has also edited Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry and a sequel. These anthologies of contemporary poems were intended for use in schools. The first of these anthologies was part of his work as U.S. Poet Laureate beginning in 2001. He was a professor of English at Lehman College, City University of New York for many years and lives in Somers, New York.


It was the scent of burning leaves
in a garden near Hampstead Heath
that took me back so many miles,
so many years, to an open field
where men stood round as a fire burned.

The sun set by 5 p.m. in late November.
Acrid smoke rose up and brushed
broad, curling lines across
the pale blue parchment of the sky.

The raging fire cast everyone in shadow.
From where I stood, I couldn't tell
which one was my father. More leaves
were added, and the fire flared wildly.
Their voices rose as if in song.

I scooped up a handful of fallen leaves.
They were cold and waxy and smelled of earth.
I pressed them to my face, then slipped them
into the small pocket of my coat.

As the fire burned to ashes,
I turned and then ran home.

Mary Kendall


A prim gay patient
Had a joke about a scent.
"There is this man, drunk or blind
Who walks about a port,
'I smell some fish,
A strong one, mackerel or blue,
Like blue balls."
"You are wrong," a friend corrects
"It is the whore house,
Leda and the blue swan,
Being feathered by a boney neck.
No scent that but what a smell."

He falls silent.
And then continues
"Well it's not a good joke."

So now he adds,
"There is another smell of sea story.
I cruise by harbor lights to fish for love
While killing time with fishy scents.
That close about my breathe."

A friend suggests ordinary fishing
Something he'd never done before.
"We are with strongest poles
We cast into the surf of time.
The hook on the end of mine
Swings back on me
To catch my  finger with its point".
In a second I am free and I put my pole down.
I sucked the wound
My blood has scent, my blood has taste.
I survived, so strange I survived. .

Edward N. Halperin


Whenever a dribble of processed yellow cheese,
Once trapped
Between two pieces of grilled bread,
Sizzling onto the hot pan,
An aroma rises,
Coaxing errant memories
Of the comfort
Of youth.

In the simple steam
From a bowl of cream of tomato soup,
Images arise.

The fortunes of my childhood
Appear before my eyes
In the ruby-red of creamed chipped beef.

I mine my dreams
In lumps of oatmeal,
Studded with raisins,
To enrich my soul
On cold, dark February mornings.

Fifties food fills
The swirl of gray Formica,
Contained within its deco chrome edges.

Fifties food
Followed from recipes
Taken off cans and boxes
Of name brand products,
And baked in Pyrex
With Tender Loving Care.

The legs of the table were bowed with the weight
Of rivers of liver,
Smothered in onions,
And mashed potato volcanoes
That staged gravy eruptions
At the slightest touch of the fork.

The warmth of these smells
That assailed my nose then,
Sail through my mind now
Giving off new comfort
In a world,
Sometimes mean,
Like a bowl
Full of cold
Lima beans.

Christopher Bogart


Walking about my hometown,
I am surprised by how small it seems.
Even the church bells,
Shrunk by time’s slow wash,
Have different tones.
Down the way
A man begins mowing his lawn,
Filling the day with green smells,
Evoking memories of baling hay
On my uncle’s farm,
When the world and I were younger.

Wondering where this may take me,
I listen for other sounds,
Wait for other smells…

In the distance, the wail
Of a passing train
Blends with my cigarette’s smoke…
Another brick in memory lane
As once again
I hear my uncles and father,
All railroad men,
Tell tales
Through clouds of Prince Albert and Camels,
Of the legends of the rail…
Mighty engines, odd characters
And the wrecks they had seen.

Before long, I find myself walking
Along the banks of the Scioto River,
Through a heady musk
Of forest and wildflowers,
Laying on these banks,
Or in the tree hose above
The river’s run…
Star gazing, shadow chasing, kite flying days…
And that special week in August…
The last week of summer…
Days of hot sun and leaf shadows
And exotic fragrances
Dancing in the hair
And on the skin
Of a green-eyed girl…
Making giggly love in the tall grass,
Bathing in the cool, flowing water…
Spending hours
Sharing dreams
And watching water spiders
Skate intricate patterns
In the still waters
By the cattails…

We knew it would not last forever.
Our time, while short,
Was glorious, however.

Summer ended when we parted.

In the autumn then and now,
I remember her…
The last rose of summer…
In my dreams tonight,
I will lie beside the river
Weeping red petal tears.

E.W. Richardson



My daughter is bleeding.  Something from the medicine chest—something

not there—tugs me by the nose to a time when my own blood mattered.

Tincture of Merthiolate, whose sting seemed to jump like sparks from the swab

before my father even touched it to my cuts.  He'd blow to dry it quickly,


wishing me healed and painless, quite and unafraid.  Mercury suspended

in alcohol.  Mercury . . . like the little silver balls that rolled from tilt switches

he’d steal from the auto plant and give to me as toys to crack open,

perfect convex mirrors breaking smaller and smaller under my fingertips.


Victorian hatters would twitch from their trade, poisoned by mercury, a tool of their craft.

Mad as a hatter, I’d fight to keep that swab from touching me, till my father

would paint an orange smiling face on my knee—my wound a red clown’s nose—and say

No blood.  All better.  What is madness—the hurtful things we give a child, the belief


there is a power over pain, the way memory is stronger than the sight of our blood’s blood?

My daughter is bleeding.  I wish for her no grinning salve, a scar that has no stench at all.


R.G. Evans


On my lunch hour I walk by
Erzo’s and smell the garlic.
From there, I am transported into my grandmother’s
Bright, sun streaming through with yellow curtains and
granite buffet top, imported from Italy.
Water steaming boiling the raviolis.
The spaghetti, bread and antipasto on the table.
The mother Mary looking down from her portrait on the
Cousins coming over.
Mom baking sugar cookies.
Kathy and I fighting to get into the bathroom.
Have to be like big sister.

Miss them.
Can’t go back.
Even lunch at Erzo’s doesn’t fill the emptiness.

Regina Russell


Stunned seeing her name and mine on
the envelope in exacting cursive
I begin to shake slightly recalling the night
it all came together when I scored with her
for my one and only time in
four years of high school over thirty years before.
Out of the blue she ask that I drive us to
a lake cabin owned by her folks
where she deflowered me for over three hours in
a dreamland encounter
never imagined by an uninitiated lad of eighteen
and from the next day on
one to whom she never spoke again.
But riding back into town I ask why me
and learned that it had nothing to do with me
except for my aftershave
the cause of her instant invitation to share sex
with a guy whose smell was the same as
the boyfriend with whom
she had a bitter breakup the night before.
Ripping open her letter I hear from a heart
broken over the husband’s death
ending a marriage never stained by infidelity
in decades of no mistakes and
adding that the role I had played
even if unwittingly
had been cause and effect of her lifelong reformation.

F. William Broome

Here's an excerpt from Remembrance of Things Past: Volume 1: Swann's Way: Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust  so that you can see the context of the allusion.

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was... and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

Madeleines are little cakelike cookies that are baked in special molds that give them a delicate shell shape. According to one story the name "Madeleine" was given to the cookies by Louis XV to honor his father in-law's cook Madeleine Paulmier. Louis first tasted them at the Chateau Commercy in Lorraine in 1755. Louis' wife, Marie introduced them to the court and they soon became all the rage at Versailles. Whatever the origins, they have become inextricably linked with the author Marcel Proust.

Do you want to get really Proustian at home? Here's a recipe for them.



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