Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Thanks for the Memory

There are any number of things you've learned by the conscious effort to commit them to memory.  And then, there are those things that seem to have slipped into your memory vaults without you having any sense of deliberation involved in the transaction.

One of these, which dates back to high school days, is Shakespeare's Sonnet 112, in particular the lines:

For what care I who calls me well or ill, 
So you o'er-green my bad, my good allow?
You are my all-the-world, and I must strive

To know my shames and praises from your tongue;
None else to me, nor I to none alive...

And of course, Sonnet 18, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day..." Not to mention a few by Robert Burns, such as:

The best laid schemes o'mice and men,
Gang aft aglay, and leave us naught but grief and pain
For promised joy...

and another Burns favorite, 

O, wad some giftie the Giver gie us,
To see ourselves as others see us,
T'would from many a blunder free us
And foolish notion

and on to Andrew Marvell and his often misunderstood or wrongly interpreted, "To His Coy Mistress," with these lines:

But at my back I always hear
Time's wing-ed chariot drawing near,
And yonder, before us, lie deserts of vast eternity.

Given the right dosage of wine or beer, some Tennyson slips in from the funniest place:

Come into the garden, Maud,
For I'm at the gate alone.
Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat night has flown.

It was probably college, beer, and college loves that burned Lord Byron into your memory:

So, we'll go no more a roving
   So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
   And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
   And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
   And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
   And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a roving

   By the light of the moon.



From more contemporary times, perhaps because you had the pleasure of drinking too much beer with him, is Auden's


Lay your sleeping head, my love, 
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Even in these vagrant entries, you've had occasion to cite Yeat's "Ballad of the Wandering Aengus," and there is also to be considered the bit from Ezra Pound's Cantos, you believe the 81st:

What thou lovest well remains, 
                                                the rest is dross 
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee 
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage 
Whose world, or mine or theirs 
                                        or is it of none? 
First came the seen, then thus the palpable 
    Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell, 
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage 
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee


There are also lyrics of popular songs, special focus on the lyrics of Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, and Ira Gershwin.

Larry Hart, for instance:

"You have what I lack myself,
And now I even have to scratch my back myself"

or Cole Porter's poetry:

Are you my life to be,
My dream come true?
Or will this dream of mine
Fade out of view,
Like the moon growing dim,
On the rim of the hill,
In the still, chill of the night?

Seeing these in aggregate reminds you why you tend these days to limit your beers to two or three, your wine to a glass or two, your cognac to go along with coffee.

It also reminds you of another observation that found its way to stay in the disorder of your memory.  E. B. White, unfairly remembered more these days for his collaboration with his former professor at Cornell on The Elements of Style, caused you to remember a mere, random observation:  "Whoever sets pen to paper writes of himself whether knowingly or not."

This has been with you for some years, causing you to some necessary reflections when composing story, essay, or book review, a reminder when to delegate to characters, when to be the you the years have helped you articulate in much the same manner they have caused wrinkles to appear across your brow and about your chin.

The random things that stay with you, often for reasons you are unable to provide, define you as well as the wrinkles, and help you see what you have in effect made of yourself.  Yet another matter that has taken up residence in your memory is the trope of one's face at age fifty being the face one has earned.

Once in a great while, you are able to see traces of your paternal grandfather, whom you quite liked, peering out at you.  More often, your father.  Sometimes, seeing yourself in the mirror now causes you to think of your mother, not that you think you resemble her but because, were it not from DNA you inherited from her, your hairline would have retreated even further than it has, enhancing the not unwelcome resemblance between you and your father.

Barnaby Conrad, arguably your dearest friend of record, was constantly upon you about the way things, all manner of nouns and facts, slid forth from your memory, like an ATM machine that suddenly departed from its programming and began spewing twenty-dollar bills in every direction.  "Don't you,"  he would ask from time to time, "forget anything?"

The last few times he did so, your memory, and its earned authority with him, enabled you to remind him that the slightest hint reminded him of a story he'd perfected in the telling any number of times.

"But those are stories," he'd insist.

"And you tell them better than anyone else who may have been there could tell them.  You tell them so well, a person hearing them could well believe he or she was present at the event.  That's the difference between a storyteller and a large storage drive."

"But you were present at many of the incidents--"  he began.

"No,"  you had to remind him.  "Only at the retelling, which was done so well, I felt I was there."

Sometimes, memory seems like unexpected things found in trousers pockets, ticket stubs, wadded receipts with mysterious notes on them, coins, keys, an occasional grape or apricot pit, a business card from some apparently unknown person.

You have no idea how these things creep into your pockets, these lines on your face, these references to things when you compose at full-ahead focus without the thought you might bring in later, at revision.

On more than one occasion, you'll ask a former student about a project.  After a moment, you see that look, that wonderment about how you could possibly remember.  It is not an act of gallantry to say in return, how could I not remember?

The simple truth is, you do not know.  Your memory is all you have of how you got here, in this finite right-now condition.  You've seen both maternal grandparents and your mother detach from short-term memory, and yet, by your reckoning, each had a tangible personality.

It thrills you to experience the sense of familiarity with a piece of music you have heard at least five hundred times and are now experiencing again, catching something you'd missed before.  When you are with dear friends, you find yourself sometimes waiting for the surprise you know will come because that is why the friend is a dear friend in the first place.

Sometimes when you are composing and the impressions come so quickly you cannot capture all of them and you are scattered into a flight pattern of the sort you see at the beach, when you approach a congress of gulls or shore birds, waiting, and they rise up about you in a glorious swirl of wings and lift and aspiration.

Congratulations, you've just become your memory in flight, lifting, aspiring.


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