In order to maintain my sanity while immersed in my study of the heavyweights of modern poetry, Ive also been reading the delightful The Profile Makers by Linda Bierds. Unlike most poetry books Ive read, this 64-page book focuses on one particular theme, the fragility of memories. Memories of famous people who are somehow connected with recording memories" are cleverly sandwiched between personal memories of the narrators family.
The first poem in the book, Preface, sets the tone for the rest of the poems in the book:
SIX IN ALL- PREFACE
Across the buckled, suck-hole roads,
my cousin, Mathew Brady’s aide, bobbed
toward our scattered camp, his black-robed,
darkroom "whatsit wagon"-its pling
of glass plate negatives-half hearse, half cloaked
calliope. The Civil War was undeveloped
and camp was thick with families, the fields
a hail of scattered tents, their canvas cupping
counterpanes, quilts with hubs of rising suns.
He posed us near our tent’s propped flap,
my parents shy against its wing, my toddler sister
tucked below, then waved us to a sudden freeze-
except for Jane, whose squirms became a handkerchief
or dove wing on the ether plate. He took
my father, stiff against the summer oaks,
then Mother’s ragged silhouette-the two of them,
and us again, and Jane asleep. Six in all,
my family and chronicles of passing light,
the day by half-steps slipping down
across our heads and collarlines.
In later years, the war long cold, he found
in surplus its brittle song: long rooms
of glass plate negatives, with lesser ones,
he told me-snow-white carbines stacked in rows,
a soldier shoveling ghostly coal-
revived as greenhouse windows. The houses
are magnificent, glass rows of smoky apparitions
that disappear, he said, when rains
begin, that melt,for human eyes at least, into
a kind of nothingness. Then only metal frames
are seen, like netting on the land.
I would find our family, he said, across
one building’s southern wall,
where tandem trunks of windblown elms
arc toward hothouse limes . .
Images on glass, slowly fading to translucence symbolizes how fragile our memories really are. The fact that the old glass plates are recycled as panes in a greenhouse also suggests just how little value people place on someone elses memories, perhaps explaining why it is often so difficult to resurrect a family history.
Recently I was given the family photographs to take care of after my mothers death and my brothers move. The most intriguing pictures are precisely those that are the most faded and the ones that have nothing written on them. Some of the picture are so faded that unless I get going with my scanner and Photoshop fairly soon, the pictures will simply cease to exist. Worst of all, neither my younger brother nor I can identify most of the people pictured; the only people that could have identified them have all passed on.
Part of what my daughter wants me to do with this web page is to preserve early memories for her and for my grandchildren. Unfortunately, though I dont consider myself that old, memories are quickly fading. At times its hard to tell what I actually remember about my childhood and what Ive been told by my parents. Even adult memories seem to be fading. After comparing my personal Vietnam memories to the memories of other veterans Ive recently discovered online, Im beginning to question my own memories of what happened.
All of the poems in this volume deal with memory in one way or another, but one of my favorites is Shawl: Dorothy Wordsworth at Eighty:
SHAWL: DOROTHY WORDSWORTH AT EIGHTY
Any strong emotion tempers my madnesses.
The death of beloveds. William in his fever-coat.
I reenter the world through a shallow door
and linger within it, conversations returning,
the lateral cycle of days.
I do not know what it is that removes me,
or sets me again at our long table, two crescents
of pike on a dark plate. But memory lives then,
and clarity. Near my back once again,
our room with a brook at the baseworks,
its stasis of butter and cheese. Or there,
in a corner, my shawl of wayside flowers.
Orchis and chickory. Little tongues of birth-wort.
I remember a cluster of autumn pike
and a dark angler on the slope of the weir.
The fish in his hand and the roiling water
brought forth with their brightness
his leggings and waist. But his torso was lost
into shadow, and only his pipe smoke survived,
lifting, then doubling, on the placid water above him.
Often, I think, I encompass a similar shadow.
But rise through it, as our looped initials
once rose over dye-stained eggs.
We were children. With the milk of a burning candle
we stroked our letters to the hollowed shells.
And dipped them, then, in a blackberry bath,
until the script of us surfaced,
pale, independent, the D and cantering W
Then C for Christopher. V-William laughed-for vale.
And he said, for Pisces, Polaris, the gimballing
planets. And for plenitude, perhaps,
each season, each voice in its furrow of air.
Once, I was told of a sharp-shinned hawk
who pursued the reflection of its fleeing prey
through three striations of greenhouse glass:
the arrow of its body cracking first into anteroom,
then desert, then the thick mist
of the fuchsias. It lay in a bloodshawl
of ruby flowers, while the petals of glass
on the brick-work floor repeated its image.
Again and again and again.
As all we have passed through sustains us.
Somehow this relatively unknown sister of one of the most famous poets of the English language portrayed in her old age when she, too, seems to be losing her memory of herself is a perfect symbol of what it means to lose your memory . As a reader, Im learning about a person I should probably have heard of, but havent. (Luckily the internet, after a little searching, provided some excellent background material. Excerpts from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals offers general insights into Dorothys life, while "Thoughts on my Sickbed" is a delightful poem illustrating her own poetic talents.)
Sadly, the poem personally strikes a little too close to home, as my mother suffered from Alzheimers at eighty, seemingly losing her very self as she lost her memories. Like Dorothy, my mother could still remember some childhood events because strong emotion seems to be a major factor in remembering the past. In Alzheimers disease it is often the most recent memories that go first, leaving the childhood memories as the most vivid memories, as if the adult was slowly being stripped away.
It is, however, the last stanza that makes the poem most memorable for me. Somehow Bierds image of the sharp-shinned hawks tragically reflected in the shattered glass and covered in the bloodshawl of ruby flowers haunts me, as does the line as all we have passed through sustains us. Lifes experiences, at least the strongly emotional ones, are shattering, and it is precisely these moments that stand out in our memory. And yet somehow they help to sustain us in who we are. And if what we have gone through fades, as the images on the glass plate faded, then we lose the very thing that sustains us and defines who we are.
"The Profile Makers" is sometimes hard to come by, but this small volume is certainly worth the effort it takes to locate it.