Sunday, January 25, 2009

a poem to read then forget

This is probably the first of many posts about memory. It is fascinating to me - the biology, the philosophy, the poetic, social and cultural aspects. It's not surprising to me I've ended up working with people with dementia. Until a couple years ago, I could not comprehend how people forgot things. I mean I've always been somewhat absent-minded as far as short-term memory goes, but I never had forgotten something once reminded. I would be with someone and remind them of something we'd done before and they would draw a blank. I guess I didn't have much empathy for that - you were THERE, you were forming memories - WHERE did they go in your head?

Then, a few years ago I must have hit maximum capacity. I couldn't always place myself in others' stories of me. Alarmingly, sometimes I couldn't remember if something was a story I heard or something that happened to me. Sometimes I wasn't sure if I had said something out loud or just thought it. Now I realize that these are 'normal' things that make up our human experience and aren't (hopefully!) indicative of early dementia or mental illness. It's also allowed me to be more associative and a bit more creative - and not critical anymore of those who occasionally forget. So I've joined the multitudes whose identity is a constellation of shifting and disappearing memories, and who are occasionally mysteries to themselves. This poem, to me, is about that bittersweet, beautiful experience:

Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

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