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The substance of memory

Guest curator: American poet Chloe Garcia Roberts on how we remember through poetry
 

 
Chloe Garcia Roberts, memory, Guest Curator, poetry
© Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University.

A recent article in The New York Times discusses how the inclination to record every second of a child’s life, through the plethora of devices we have at our disposal, will not just change how childhood is remembered but how it is experienced in the moment. Over the last few decades, our conception of memory, or the act of remembering, has undergone great revolutions, giving us glimpses of just how plastic our memories actually are. We now see how suggestion, visual or verbal, can alter not just the way we remember events but the substance of the memory itself by supplanting what existed before. These discoveries are often applied in the context of the judicial system, which relies heavily on witness testimony of recalled incidents, but I have been thinking about it recently in light of the act of writing and reading poetry. How does the process of committing to verbal form instances from one's past alter both the substance of the author’s memory and the memories of her readers?

The poems I have chosen to highlight here address this question head on, as all of these works speak to the role of the poet as conduit of both individual and collective memory.

1. Shang Qin, 'Moonlight: In mourning of someone'

Shang Qin's poem, 'Moonlight: In mourning of someone', uses the mode of the impartial witness to recount a memory. And yet the author subverts the readers' expectations by juxtaposing the inclusion of straightforward quantitative details, such as the date or the subject's movements, with descriptions of the fullness of the moon, the color of the sky, and even the intimacy of emotion implied by the title itself. Despite presenting the poem as a crime scene, it is the saturation of the image Shang Qin paints that ultimately destroys the subject; it is the substance of the memory itself that drowns him.

2. Alice Oswald, 'Aside'

In contrast, Alice Oswald's poem 'Aside' shows us a moment of escape, remembered from childhood. However, she subverts the expected crystalline moment-in-time narrative by collapsing the walls between the speaker's past and present and asserting that she has never actually left that moment. Her hiding place is a permanent one; it holds her still. The poem is a memory of an escape that has never been escaped. In this poem, the present is just the future of the remembered self.

3. Homero Aridjis, 'Autoretrato a los seis años'

The Mexican poet Homero Aridjis highlights the inseparability of the self and its past in his poem, 'Autoretrato a los seis años', by asserting that the past is the substance of the self. The poem, which depicts a childhood memory of a classroom and the act of learning to read, presents the remembered moment as an aperture: a view below into the magmic interior of his memory and the moment of his intellectual birth.

4. Yves Bonnefoy, 'The house where I was born (04)'

Yve Bonnefoy's 'The house where I was born (04)', as in Shang Qin's poem, establishes a temporal contrast from the first line: 'Another time'. The poet's approach to capturing the moment seems to be to build a skin around it, to cage it, instead of recreating it from the emotional heart outwards. The author produces a tension between the intimate location of the title and the dream-like landscape of the poem itself. This landscape is general enough that the reader can walk it and remember it alongside the author – and finally turn with him in the last line to face the voice in the emptiness.

5. Mark Strand, 'Where are the waters of childhood?'

Finally, in Mark Strand's poem 'Where are the waters of childhood?', the author uses a unique poetic technique of creating a warp and weft of the general (what we all can remember: the trees, the dogs, the faceless neighbors) and the specific (details which belong to the author himself: Winslow Homer's painting, the coastline, a field of oxeye daisies) to create a state of shared childhood. The poem is, in a sense, an arc of memory that the reader can feel as the poet guides her to his destination: the source of memory itself.


Chloe Garcia Roberts is the author of the poetry collection The Reveal, which is forthcoming from Noemi Press in fall 2015, and the translator of Li Shangyin's Derangements of My Contemporaries: Miscellaneous Notes (New Directions), which was awarded a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. Her work has appeared in the publications BOMB, Boston Review, A Public Space and Interim Magazine, among others. She is the Managing Editor of the Harvard Review

© Chloe Garcia Roberts