The Mutability of Memory

All of us have memories. Good memories. Bad memories. Memories we love to revisit over and over. Memories we push far back, hoping they will disappear. Some memories are vivid, while others are dreamy and vague. A few are very, very real as if they just happened, but others feel as if they stories that happened to someone else rather than us.

Memories can be haunting. Memories can be triggered by all sorts of things—from a taste that evokes brilliant memories from early childhood to a scent of burning leaves that reminds us of an autumn long gone.

It began with a prompt in March 2014 in Poets Online to use a first line from an Emily Dickinson poem as our own poem title and then to write a new poem. This was one of my favorite prompts because it asked me to do something I had never considered. I do read Emily Dickinson’s poetry from time to time. I puzzle over her words and meanings. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what she meant and how she did it. She never ceases to amaze me or probably any of her readers. To borrow a first line from her seemed a bit like stealing something sacred. And then the fun began–going through all of her first lines (which, of course, have also become the titles of her otherwise untitled poems)–and selecting one to work with. The prompt suggested we not read (or reread if we had read the poem a while back) Emily Dickinson’s version until our own version was complete. Fair enough.

After going through the list of first lines of Dickinson, I had to eliminate all those I knew. That meant excluding some wonderful poems I knew and loved. It also meant I had to find a poem that was unknown to me. Oddly enough the one I ended up with is a well-known poem of hers, but I couldn’t remember reading it (failure of memory on my part perhaps?), so I chose it. I love this line. “The Past is Such a Curious Creature.” Don’t you love the very idea of it, calling the past a curious creature, personification with such crisp alliteration?

Following the instructions, I did some thinking of what the line meant to me, what it brought forward. That’s how poets work. It can be rather vague to those who don’t write, but all poets know that a simple line can bring to life so many things. A poem comes from someplace deep inside, a place we’d love to explore but we only get glimpses of it. It took me a while to write the poem and to rewrite it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to submit it for quite some time. I even tested out a few other lines as prompts, but I returned to this irresistible line that Dickinson wrote. Here is the poem I finished and submitted. When the final poems were published, it was fun to read all of them. The other writers did a wonderful job. Some wrote in a style resembling hers. A few wrote in rhyme. I did none of that. Mine was in free verse, dictated only by the ideas and images that spilled out.

My poem:

THE PAST IS SUCH A CURIOUS CREATURE  (Line taken from Dickinson’s Poem CXXVII)

The past is such a curious creature
capable of creating such marvelous lies
that we begin to believe as we hear them
said again and again, forgetting that
there are those who love to distort
the truth and let it spill out and break
into brittle bits & pieces that are left
on the street to be kicked and crushed
until the shards are too small to see.

The past writes a story of its own choosing.
Its pen might be inked in faulty memory;
its paper might be marked in things that
did happen as well as those that did not.

This story is examined with the lens
of exaggeration and embellishment
until the tale that remains
is now so embedded in our minds
that we can no longer know
what was real and what was not.

And now for the inspiration piece, the poem written by Miss Dickinson:

by Emily Dickinson (Complete Poems, 1924).

Part One: Life CXXVIII

The Past is such a curious creature
To look her in the face,
A transport may receipt us
Or a Disgrace.

Unarmed if any meet her,
I charge him fly!
Her faded ammunition
Might yet reply!

Although the prompt suggested reading the original poem after our own was nearly complete and then comparing where we were going, I opted to read Emily Dickinson’s only after my poem was more or less complete.

In Emily Dickinson’s poem, her personification of the past as a feminine being is a surprise. Then she tells us that as we remember the past, it might reveal a hidden delight or a remembrance of something disgraceful or shameful. That said, she moves to the second stanza and urges the reader to be aware that if the past memories are ignored, there might be consequences that would take us with surprising force. How true. Memories that are suppressed can and just might tumble out to reveal an unfathomable nightmare. Or more.

My own poem chose a different path. It opted for examining the past by questioning the mutability of memory. Is the past always the past? Is it constant? Or is its story one that changes in the retelling and perspective of the storyteller? My point of view came arose from the self-examination of a few haunting memories from my own early childhood. These particular memories were negative, but they were mine as I perceived them.

In asking one of my sisters about her perception of these same events, her memory was quite different from my own. So, which was true? Either one? Both? True for her, and true for me, even with different observations and conclusions? I spent a long time trying to figure it out but was unable to do so. My past. Her past. Our past. Memory can change and distort with time, age, experiences, contemplation, It does present some good leads for poems, but it does not answer the question as to what that unhappy childhood memory really was all about.

Poetry allows us to raise questions and to examine possibilities. It is not psychotherapy, nor is it scientific. What it does do is give the poet a way to explore personal stories and experiences and to turn them into something that goes far beyond the individual self. It offers each reader a chance to follow along and even to join in, adding their own experiences and memories into the mix.

What do YOU think about the mutability of memory? Can we ever answer all of the questions we have about the past?

(Note: part of this posting appeared on my other blog, Bedford Square +2)

18 thoughts on “The Mutability of Memory

  1. Mary, your poem is wonderful. This was a truly fascinating exercise and you were up to the challenge. Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets, so much so my middle son bought me a copy of her works many years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just finished reading Kate Atkinson’s “A God in Ruins” which is not only about memory but an exploration of how events change possibilities (and also the “same” story told from a different point of view from her previous novel), so I’ve been thinking about how the smallest thing can change both memory and possibility. So much of what we see and remember is colored by who we are, and how our past has gotten us to our present…is Truth even possible? (K)

    Liked by 1 person

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