Apr. 4, 2003

To a Friend Who Keeps Telling Me That He Has Lost His Memory

by W. S. Merwin

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"To a Friend Who Keeps Telling Me That He Has Lost His Memory," by W. S. Merwin from The Pupil (Alfred A. Knopf).

To a Friend Who Keeps Telling Me That He Has Lost His Memory

And yet you know that you remember me
whoever I am and it is to me
you speak as you used to and we are sure of it

and you remember the child being saved
by some kind of mother from whatever
she insists he will never be able
to do when he has done it easily
the light has not changed at all on that one
falling in front of you as you look through it

and decades of explaining are a fan
that opens against the light here and there
proving something that then darkens again
they are at hand but even closer than they are
is the grandmother who entrusted you
with her old Baedecker to take along
on the Normandy landing where it turned out
to have powers and a time of its own

but the names fade out leaving the faces
weddings and processions anonymous
where is it that the sudden tears well up from
as you see faces turning in silence
though if they were here now it would still be
hard for you to hear what they said to you

and you lean forward and confide in me
as when you arrived once at some finely
wrought conclusion in the old days
that what interests you most of all now is birdsong
you have a plan to take some birds with you


Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of social reformer Dorothea Dix, born in Hampden, Maine (1802). Her father was an itinerant preacher and an alcoholic, and her mother suffered from depression, so Dix went to live with her grandmother in Boston. Under her grandmother's care, she grew into an avid reader and student, and by the time she was fourteen, she had opened her own school for small children. But the illnesses she had suffered throughout her youth eventually forced her to close the school. Hoping to gain rest and recovery in the warm Italian sunshine, she headed to Europe, but she became sick again, and she got no farther than London. There, she met several people interested in treating the mentally ill, and she learned her first lessons on the moral treatment of the insane. Upon her return, she learned that her grandmother had died and left her a large sum of money. Although she never felt comfortable with her new wealth, it allowed her to continue to pursue her passion for prison reform for the rest of her life. One raw, cold Sunday in Boston in 1841, a young minister asked her to start a Sunday school for twenty female inmates at a jail in Cambridge. Dix was not one to turn down a challenge, and she accepted the volunteer work. After she finished her lessons, she went to see the lower sections of the jail, despite protests from the jailor. She found men and women naked and chained to the walls, underfed and given no heat. Immediately she began a campaign to install stoves in the cells and to clothe the prisoners. Dix was the first person in the United States to suggest that mentally ill people were not criminals, and that prisons were not the best places to keep them. When she started to work for the construction of more asylums for the insane, there were only eleven such hospitals in the whole country. She never married and she never settled anywhere -- she was too busy traveling throughout the country, visiting the ill in prisons and hospitals and talking to politicians.

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