March 16, 2014
How We Remember
clouds soft against the relentless sky
as though one were asleep and only dreaming.”
I was reading the New York Times one day. It led me to an interview with the writer Meghan O’Rourke who had written a book that deals with the death of her mother. The article was about grief, how we stumble through loss and what we carry away from the subtraction. It made me think about how I remember my own mother. How even though she died 12 years ago in many ways the grief of that loss has not disappeared. And as it is for many people, the loss has transformed and lessened, but is always a subtle shadow. And maybe because we were close and shared many ways of looking at the world, she is always with me, not a haunting, but a presence.
Poets spend a lot of time remembering or approximating a memory and constructing it all into a new form and putting it onto the page. It is a way to measure time and make it flex, give it a new melody, mortal shape or conclusion. My mother would steer her pencil to a small room, sit at her modest white desk, address the fog of her mind with a cup of coffee and write. She was knee deep in some other world that you could only enter if you knew the code on her internal lock. None of us ever did, except maybe the cat.
There is a fine art in making something seem simple when it really is not, when it is more along the lines of a polynomial equation. My mother used her words to reach back and re-tell, but also distill to a pure clean line. This was a gift that seemed to elude me. She did her best to teach me how to sweep the clutter from my own work so it had a polished gleam of a solitary stone, not the endless random scattering of swamp pebbles. I won’t pretend she was always very successful, but it was that act, the winnowing down, her exacto-knife approach to her own work that sits with me every day when I write.
The poet Muriel Rukeyser said in The Poem as Mask, “Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand, the fragments join in me with their own music.” My mother taught me to keep working with the fragments and the music will come.
My mother wrote extensively about her experiences as a child of immigrants. She wasn’t always enamored with her ethnicity, didn’t sugar coat it, but couldn’t deny its power. It drew her back often as if those Kalevala spirits of air, sun and moon sung some spell to keep her searching her old stories. As my mother aged, her mind began to slip into long dark rivers away from us. And yet it would return with a great need to keep writing. So when she was seventy-five and fighting early stages of Alzheimer’s she began to work on her last book. She battled the fractured state of her mind as she gathered together a variety of genres. For her, writing was an honest admission of loves and disappointments, a place to speak quietly, but firmly about her convictions, but also it was so much about retrieving memory. Her memory was fraying and it frustrated her for she could not construct the book she desperately wanted to make. Still she kept at it, tugging at her own distant stories, where they would bob to the surface, as she described in one of her poems, “submerged logs, remnants of another time… dark ghosts from the water.” She did manage to assemble a final book. And once it was published she wished to begin again. The longing to create never left her.
Eventually all that memory that was for her a compass to her art, fell away. She would hold her own books as though she had never seen them before. What she loved so well she was forced to let go in the power of language with all its everyday and extraordinary voices. When she could no longer read or speak, I and many others would read to her from all of her favorites; Adrienne Rich, Tomas Tranströmer, Eeva Kilpi, Rilke, as well as her own words. And I often thought of the words she herself had spoken, “You know if you keep at it, something will emerge.” I’ll never know what she heard or understood, but I can hope somewhere deep in the hollows where ideas and memories are born and collide, she took the words as food, as offerings to any want. She seemed all bone and star.
When she wrote one of her poems called Tuohela, it was all a conjuring of memory. Tuohela was a cabin she visited with her parents as a very young girl. In the poem she tries to recall events and summons something more elusive, the idea of place, of belonging, of ancestry. Cesare Pavese said, “We do not remember days, we remember moments. The richness of life lies in the memories we have forgotten.”
Memory, a field of study once placed inside the critical domain of philosophy is now plunked deftly between the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. My mother, a poet with Alzheimer’s, found herself set squarely inside both schools. She might have said that she belonged in neither one. In many ways she was an old believer. She believed that the world coursed with mystery and people sometimes just needed help finding the divine of their own hearts. And that is how I choose to remember her, my memory all cluttered with various fades and shifts, at times rich in blackness and other times strung with colored lights.
So how do we remember? That question is up for grabs for all of us who have stories to tell. And despite science and philosophy and our endless human desire to quantify, maybe it is all still a bit of an unknown. Aaro Hellakoski said, “deep in my being where no being’s available, the utterly unsayable is ready for saying—for gladly somewhere-as no one’s speaking- a song’s breathing in dreamers everywhere.”
Let our dreams continue in memories, let them glide and sing their elusive songs.
(An earlier version of this appeared in the New World Finn.)
April snow has swallowed up my yard once again. It waits for wind sheer and boot prints of the mailman. It is as white as an unwritten page. Many invectives could follow here, but I’ll attempt to refrain.
In the spring I make an attempt at a nature diary. It is often all scribbles and bits, dribs and drabs of observation and more often a great deal of long odes and field hollers of desire. This is that time of year when I feel like Blanche DuBois, standing on the fire escape waiting for Stanley to go ahead and rip his t-shirt.
One of my favorite Finnish poets, Arvo Turtiainen said, “Spring crept onto the tin roofs and danced there with the wind, spring ripped the windows open and whipped the housewives out onto the balconies to belabor their mats, spring licked the park trees reddish and blued the evenings….”
Spring can be a kind of a slow motion affair, (this year its slowness is more like the swift movement of the Mendenhall Glacier). But sometimes when spring does arrive, it’s easy to miss all its details until it has completely taken us over with its flood of green. In lieu of Stanley, my true spring desires run more along the lines of the appearance of snow fleas, first drops of sap, tree buds, the goldfinch smudging back to yellow. Humble desires yes, but ones I look for with curiosity as arrival dates change. So given spring’s changing appearance every year I still take a crack at my own version of phenology, writing down observations when I can. I start my notes with birds. Before the new onslaught of snow, I watched killdeer fly over farm fields and eagles perched in trees all along highway 61. Today cardinals threw out forlorn songs sitting on broken, icy branches.
In the spring, birds are kind of the teenagers at Daytona Beach. There is no mistaking when they arrive. Even in snow melt, birds show up all pumped for loud music and fast dating, but then they take up home construction and raise families. So they are an enduring lesson of life cycles for my daughter and me, and to our never-ending dismay, an interesting source of snack food for our cat.
Birds awaken us from our cold somnolence. For some of us it is utter satisfaction to sit in a ditch and watch yellow-rumped warblers gather and swirl around tree tops and dirty street curbs. Winter has made us hungry for something highborn, something that speaks of the sun, something that tells us maybe life isn’t all vulgar and sad. If the planet, in spite of its age and all its abuses can still deliver thumb-sized hummingbirds to a feeder to drink nectar, maybe I too can stop whining and learn something from these gem birds and their furious art of flight. My notes on hummers tend toward the poetic.
And then there is the turkey. One year a wild turkey took up residence on our city block. Here are some nature notes about the turkey:
Makes the neighborhood boys run screaming. Likes to sleep in the Japanese lilac. Scares the cat by stretching its pre-historic neck, fluffing up its feathers and stages stare downs with its beady eye. Never ceases to startle me by flapping its great spread wings within inches of my face while I get the Sunday paper. Likes to eat coneflowers. Likes to look at itself in every front door window on the block.
The turkey showed up one spring laying eggs in a neighbor’s backyard. The eggs did not survive, but the turkey remained. We grew accustomed to her roaming, her hunt for seeds, her implacable quest for whatever constitutes a turkey’s life on an inner city block by an interstate freeway.
The other day I saw crows circling a great horned owl soaring over our roof. It appeared the owl had something the crows wanted in on. The owl darted through the urgent tangle of dark birds, swift and light. There was strength in all that rising struggle and suspension. The crows eventually gave up and the owl flew off.
I often stand and feel illiterate in the face of nature. It has a different language. A different silence.
Like Thoreau and Thomas Jefferson taking their notes and the Japanese, a thousand years ago charting the arrival of the cherry blossoms, kids begin their own phenology in biology class, noting the arrival dates of migrant spring birds. So our desires to observe and record the changes of earth run long and deep. Aldo Leopold said, “The months of year, from January to June are a geometric progression in the abundance of distractions.”
For me birds are some of the greatest distractions the earth has to offer. And so is the arrival of spring. Should it ever come. I continue on with my own sketches and nature notes as the earth eventually gets warmer and the environment responds, telling us of both the disappearance and discoveries happening around us.
Viljo Kajava said in his poem from Song of Sparrows, (Spring 1918), “What was that bird that I heard in May? It was the sound I heard when I pressed my head against my mother’s wrist.”
Birds are symbols of how to cheat gravity and ride with angels. They are symbols of our simplest desires to be giddy and find love, to possess power, but also adaptability, delicacy and rebirth. Look for their wingbeats in the coming season. They have much to tell us.
(An earlier version of this piece was previously published in the New World Finn)