Dec. 27, 2004

This is How Memory Works

by Patricia Hampl

Monday, 27 DECEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "This is How Memory Works" by Patricia Hampl, from Resort © Carnegie Mellon University Press. Reprinted with permission.

This is How Memory Works

You are stepping off a train.
A wet blank night, the smell of cinders.
A gust of steam from the engine swirls
around the hem of your topcoat, around
the hand holding the brown leather valise,
the hand that, a moment ago, slicked back
the hair and then put on the fedora
in front of the mirror with the beveled
edges in the cherrywood compartment.

The girl standing on the platform
in the Forties dress
has curled her hair, she has
nylon stockings - no, silk stockings still.
Her shoulders are touchingly military,
squared by those shoulder pads
and a sweet faith in the Allies.
She is waiting for you.
She can be wearing a hat, if you like.

You see her first.
that's part of the beauty:
you get the pure, eager face,
the lyrical dress, the surprise.
You can have the steam,
the crowded depot, the camel's-hair coat,
real leather and brass clasps on the suitcase;
you can make the lights glow with
strange significance, and the black cars
that pass you are historical yet ordinary.

The girl is yours,
the flowery dress, the walk
to the streetcar, a fried egg sandwich
and a joke about Mussolini.
You can have it all:
you're in that world, the only way
you'll ever be there now, hired
for your silent hammer, to nail pictures
to the walls of this mansion
made of thinnest air.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1831 that Charles Darwin set sail from England on the HMS Beagle, beginning the journey that would take him to the Galapagos Islands and inspire his theory of evolution. His father wanted him to be a clergyman, but Darwin always cared more about collecting beetles than he did about theology. He took a biology class in college, and his teacher recommended him for the spot on an upcoming voyage to South America. His father was furious, but Darwin went anyway.

Darwin had terrible seasickness, so as soon as they reached South America, he spent as much time on land as he could, traveling through unexplored regions. He was amazed at the variety of shapes and colors in the plants and animals he found. He wrote in his diary, "It creates a feeling of wonder that so much beauty should be apparently created for such little purpose."

He returned to England in the fall of 1836, and never traveled beyond Great Britain again. He spent years thinking about what he'd seen during his voyage on the Beagle, and eventually developed the theory of evolution in the mid-1840s. But he was terrified to publish it, for fear of offending people's religious beliefs. He said, "It is like confessing to a murder." Finally, in 1859, he published On the Origin of Species (1859), which forever changed the way people thought about living things and their beginnings.

Charles Darwin wrote, "Probably all organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed. There is grandeur in this view of life that...from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Wilfrid Sheed, born in London, England (1930). His parents ran a publishing house that mainly published Catholic literature. He moved with his family to Pennsylvania when he was a boy, and grew up in a tiny village where there were almost no other children, and he spent most of his free time playing baseball by himself. He said, "I became perhaps the outstanding solitary baseball player of my generation."

He traveled back and forth between England and the United States as he was growing up, and it made him feel like a foreigner wherever he was. He went to Oxford for college and wrote his first novel about it, called A Middle Class Education (1961).

Sheed has supported himself for much of his life as a journalist and a book reviewer, and he said, "Book reviewing gives me a certain thin-lipped benignity towards my own critics, when they turn the cannon round and aim it in my direction. Unsympathetic criticism stings like hell for twenty-four hours, but you are less likely to feel a personal animus about it if you have stung a few victims yourself."

He has written several satirical novels about the business of journalism, including The Hack (1963) about a miserable man who writes uplifting poems and stories for a Catholic magazine, and Max Jamison (1970) about a theater critic who can't help criticizing everything in his own life. Most recently, he has written several memoirs, including My Life as a Fan (1993), about his love of baseball, and In Love with Daylight: A Memoir of Recovery (1995).

Wilfrid Sheed said, "One reason the human race has such a low opinion of itself is that it gets so much of its wisdom from writers."

It's the birthday of avant-garde poet Charles Olson, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1910). As a young man, he became obsessed with Herman Melville and tracked down Melville's entire personal library in preparation for writing a book about him. But he put off writing the book and took a job in Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration instead. He worked his way up to a high-powered job in the Office of War Information, but he grew more and more frustrated by bureaucratic inefficiency.

Then, one day, he quit his job and vowed to devote the rest of his life to poetry.

Olson started paying visits to the poet Ezra Pound, who was being held on treason charges in St. Elizabeth's mental hospital, and he started writing poetry influenced by Pound, full of allusions to ancient mythology and classical literature. He wrote a manifesto about the kind of poetry he believed poets should be writing, called Projective Verse (1959). He advocated for a kind of poetry that was completely free of meter or rhyme and concerned more with the sounds of words than the sense they made. He lectured on this style of poetry at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and influenced many younger poets, including Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley.

His first book of poems was In Cold Hell, In Thicket (1953) and it contained his most famous poem "The Kingfishers" which begins, "What does not change is the will to change." He spent most of the rest of his life writing an epic series of poems called The Maximus Poems about the history of Gloucester, Massachusetts, the coastal town where he spent his summers as a child. The first volume of The Maximus Poems was published in 1960.

It's the birthday of poet Juan Felipe Herrera, born in Fowler, California (1948). The son of migratory farm workers, he spent his childhood on the move, living in a series of farm camps in California. He said, "I grew up as a gypsy child. You're under the sky. You're always moving. You don't really worry about having too many things. You just hang out, stay light ... in nature. It was beautiful."

Herrera has written many collections of poetry, including Exiles of Desire (1983) and Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream (1999) and he has recently published several bilingual books for children, including Calling the Doves (1995) and The Upside Down Boy (2000).

He said, "Writing for children is the other side of paradise...I can say the same things with fewer words, with words made out of corn and river water. Basic, real stuff, from the ground."

Today is the 100th anniversary of the first performance James Barrie's play, Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, which had its opening night on this day in 1904. Barrie was a successful playwright at the time, but he became obsessed with the production of Peter Pan. He rewrote the script more than twenty times. It was one of the most expensive productions ever attempted at that time, since it required the construction of harnesses and wires so that the actors could appear to fly around the stage.

It was also one of the first plays to acknowledge the existence of the audience. In the famous scene, Peter Pan asks members of the audience to clap if they believe in fairies, in order to save the life of Tinker Bell. Barrie was terrified that the audience might not clap, so he asked the orchestra to do so if necessary. But the audience did clap, and the play was a huge success.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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