Begging for Spring

March 16, 2014

How We Remember

“Memories glide
clouds soft against the relentless sky
as though one were asleep and only dreaming.”

-Hannu Mäkelä

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.)