Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"Such Are The Things Remain Quietly, And For Ever, In The Brain"

It's odd what sticks in one's memory.  I'm not talking about births, deaths, marriages, et cetera.  Rather, I'm talking about the random scenes that carry no apparent freight of significance in terms of our life story.  But they nonetheless retain a clarity that is akin to a vivid dream from which one has just awoken.

For instance:  I recall standing in a harvested cornfield in Minnesota on a sunny autumn day nearly 50 years ago.  On the ground around me were corn cobs and corn kernels.  I  remember the bright yellow of the kernels against the dark soil.  High overhead hundreds of Canadian geese, in V-formations, flew away to the south.  Down from the sky came the unending sound: honk, honk, honk.

I have no urge to derive any "meaning" from this memory. There is no skein to be untangled.  It is not the beginning of a path into a dark (or magical) forest.  I've come to the conclusion that the fact that these things happened is enough in itself.

                               Gilbert Spencer, "From My Studio" (c. 1959)

                        History

Sometimes, when walls and occupation seem
A prison merely, a dark barrier
Between me everywhere
And life, or the larger province of the mind,
As dreams confined,
As the trouble of a dream,
I seek to make again a life long gone,
To be
My mind's approach and consolation,
To give it form's lucidity,
Resilient form, as porcelain pieces thrown
In buried China by a wrist unknown,
Or mirrored brigs upon Fowey sea.

Then to my memory comes nothing great
Of purpose, or debate,
Or perfect end,
Pomp, nor love's rapture, nor heroic hours to spend --
But most, and strangely, for long and so much have I seen,
Comes back an afternoon
Of a June
Sunday at Elsfield, that is up on a green
Hill, and there,
Through a little farm parlour door,
A floor
Of red tiles and blue,
And the air
Sweet with the hot June sun cascading through
The vine-leaves under the glass, and a scarlet fume
Of geranium flower, and soft and yellow bloom
Of musk, and stains of scarlet and yellow glass.

Such are the things remain
Quietly, and for ever, in the brain,
And the things that they choose for history-making pass.

John Drinkwater, Loyalties (1922).

                                Harold Jones, "The Black Door" (c. 1935)

6 comments:

Alex said...

It is odd that so many apparently insignificant or even meaningless things remain quietly, and for ever, in the brain. Now I'm reminded of Proust.

Proust believed that 'involuntary memories' contained the very essence of our forgotten past. Such memories being involuntary (not being called up to order), are perhaps triggered by some experience or sensation. In the celebrated case of Proust, under the aspect of the narrator Marcel, his buried life history begins to emerge whilst eating a Madeleine cake soaked in tea.

From this involuntary alighting, as it were, upon a piece of the jigsaw, to which many, many more pieces are added, a complex picture is slowly revealed.

Stephen Pentz said...

Alex: thank you very much for those thoughts. I hadn't thought of Proust, but I should have! Your point is an excellent one.

And I do like the idea of these involuntary memories being pieces of a jigsaw. I've often wondered about how to approach them/what to do with them, and your jigsaw idea is a wonderful way to think about them. I greatly appreciate that insight.

Thank you once again.

Alex said...

I suppose if one were writing a memoir (or an autobiography), a conscious and sustained effort to dredge up memories and corroborate them in some way would be a necessary part of the process. The serendipity of involuntary memories can't be relied on to embellish an autobiography.

For most of us, I suspect, involuntary memories seem to lead nowhere in particular - unless we are endowed with the 'super-sensibility' of someone like Proust. (I guess what I'm groping toward is the idea that an involuntary memory is inherently poetic, while easily recalled memories are merely prosaic.)

Incidentally, I began visiting First Known When Lost only a few weeks ago: I can't remember whether I followed a link to this website or arrived by accident. However, I'm glad I discovered your blog because it's an oasis of civilization in the internet desert of barbarism.

Stephen Pentz said...

Alex: thank you very much for the kind words about the blog. I'm glad that you found your way here, and I hope that you'll keep returning.

Thank you as well for your follow-up thoughts. I agree with you about the distinction between having involuntary memories and trying to intentionally "dredge up memories." I much prefer the former. The latter seems tiresome to me. And, as you suggest, involuntary memories have a piquancy and clarity to them that "dredged up" memories don't. (At least in my experience.)

Having said this, I am definitely not in Proust's league, and I'll have to content myself with these brief, intermittent flashes of the past. Weaving them together a la Proust is not in the cards.

Thanks again.

littlemancat said...

The moment in the cornfield - its color, perhaps scent, and the sound of the geese above, coming or leaving, was a beautiful one, one that perhaps led you,however indirectly, to your love of poetry.
A golden moment -
Mary

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: thank you for that lovely thought. It is not something that had occurred to me at all. But the possibility that you raise is a wonderful one, and I'm very grateful to you for pointing it out. It puts things in a whole new light.

It is extremely thoughtful of you to send that thought to me. Thank you again!