Language, Memory & Poem
“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed,” says the narrator of Julian Barnes amazing novel, The Sense of a Beginning,” who says a lot of memorable things I will be writing down as soon as I finish the book so I don’t forget them. This week, I learned that what you end up remembering may lead you back to what you have witnessed.
I have to say that coming home after 40 years, I am remembering a lot I hadn’t forgotten but I had forgotten to recall, assisted now as I am by people who knew me 40, 50, and 60 years ago, many of them the octogenarians who are repeopling my life again. It comes to be Barnes’ point too, that often the witnesses return your memories to you, make them yours for you. My mom and dad’s childhood friend, Marilyn Sterzbach, did that for me this past Wednesday.
But before we get to her, a different example of this expanding memory thing. A friend since grade school days suddenly left high school our junior year. I didn't see her again until decades later at a class reunion, and now, more recently, we connected on Facebook. Last week, looking at her face there to the left above her “Go Florida Gators” post, a 45-year-old memory returned to me of our discussing during Spanish class that her cousin, Bob the chiropractor, seemed to be my mom’s cousin Bob the chiropractor. At the time, I think I never asked if we could possibly be related, but now I wonder—are we? She looks a little like my Aunt Margaretta. My mom’s family is a bit of a mystery on one side since my maternal great-grandmother, who was from one county over, died when my grandmother was only five, and no one seems to have much information about her. So I emailed my friend and flat out asked her—could we be related? She hasn’t answered, perhaps horrified at the very idea.
However, what I have been thinking about lately is language, those early language memories. I have always cherished my earliest memory as being a language acquisition memory. I don’t know if I have always recalled it, or if a family photo of the moment triggered it decades later. (“Memory knows before knowing remembers,” as Faulkner’s Light in August puts it. I wrote that sentence down when I read it my junior year of college and have never never forgotten it.) And now that I go to retell this story, I find the picture missing from the “1950s” slot of my photo box. As I recall, it is a small glossy black and white of my maternal grandma, Gladys Young (nee Swaller), bending over in her middy-length housedress, butt-end up and toward the camera, and me, in my underpants, next to her in the same pose. On that occasion, Grandma had been weeding the flower bed by the back door, my 18-month-old sister Daun and I playing nearby, and my father behind us all, laughing at Grandma’s pose, for all the world like those cut-out wooden lawn ornaments of people posing, bent over, from the rear, that used to be popular in, and have not yet disappeared from, Midwestern yards. I imagine (and this is all my imagination) Grandma turning around with a big smile, shaking a handful of weeds at Dad, and bending over, going right back to weeding. But (and this is definitely not my imagination) I remember thinking, “Daddy thinks she is laughy. Laughy is good. Me too,” and I proceeded to stand next to my grandmother and bend over like her. My dad, ever ready with his camera in those summer days, caught the shot of the two of us butt-up gardeners.
I honestly believe that the adjective I thought was not the word, “funny,” that somehow I did not have that word in my vocabulary yet, but I did know “laugh,” I knew what a laugh was. Could I already have known that we make adjectives by adding a “y”? How could I? And yet, this is my memory of the thought: “Daddy thinks she is laughy. Laughy is good….” Laughy was good back then. We tended to laugh with and not at, to chuckle and guffaw and not to jeer.
So I’ve been thinking that was my earliest memory, and one involving language, too, till Marilyn, this past Wednesday when she and my dad were baking in her kitchen, reminded me of another early, maybe earlier, memory. That memory involves not only language but poetry, perhaps. It really is Marilyn’s memory, but one she and my mother told so often in my presence growing up that I own it, too, though I still do not recall being its witness.
The story has been that my parents were visiting her and her husband and we all went on a horse and carriage ride. Then, the details are a bit blurry. I think I did not want to get out, wanted to ride around in a carriage longer, probably forever, and they told me the horsy need to go home and go to sleep. Yes, all of us two years olds are onto that trick: who exactly needs to go home and go to sleep? And now, the story as retold over the years is that the whole ride home, exhausted and yet too excited to sleep, I had recited these words, “The horsy, and the water, and the horsy went to sleep.” Whenever Marilyn tells this story, as she has been telling it for, oh, 60 years now, she repeats the line over and over as, I gather, I must have repeated it the whole way home, the way children can repeat something to the point of adults’ distraction. The horsy and the water and the horsy went to sleep. The horsy and the water and the horsy went to sleep. The horsy and the water and the horsy went to sleep. The horsy and the water and….
Suddenly, when Marilyn told this story on Wednesday, I realized that this may have been my first poem. Hmmm. What to make of it. Is it iambic heptameter, as its underlying rhythm suggests
The HOR-sy AND the WA-ter AND the HOR-sy WENT to SLEEP
But really to me, it’s always sounded more like
The HOR-sy and the WA-ter and the HOR-sy WENT to SLEEP,
Making it more like a basic iambic pentameter with lots of extra unaccented syllables in the first two feet. I know this sounds like blahblahblah to my non-poet friends and terribly naïve, untutored analysis to my traditionalist poet friends, but I have always struggled with poetic scansion, not because I do not know (and teach) all the terms and examples, but because the system seems not quite to fit for me, seems to have been dragged into English from other languages where the system fits better. When Marilyn recites it, she does not so much stress the two "and's" as stretch them out, like Ed McMahon on Johnny Carson, "aaaaaand," length and not stress being the operative sound. (Another way the language can be meted out.) I can force this line into heptameter—did I when I was two? Whether this is heptameter or a sort of sprung pentameter, it clearly ends in three clear iambs. Iambs to close it all out. We do tend to go back to them, don't we?.
So this is how I was going on inside my head as Marilyn was repeating the story for the 500th time in my life, to me and my father, who was there both in the car 60 years ago and in the kitchen this week, but Marily was also tellling the story to a new member in the audience of her kitchen, a visiting nurse. Marilyn turned to give her the backstory, “My husband and I were living in Niagara Falls when Diane's parents gave to visit with —“
Niagara Falls??? Niagara Falls? All my life I had rationalized that they must have told me the horsy needed to get a drink and supper and “go to sleep,” but now, I realize, this was the story of my day: the horsy and the water. “The water” was not “a drink,” it was “Niagara Falls.” ("Niagara Effing Falls," I repeat to myself in wonder.) Oh my pentameter. You can read a poem for years, say it over and over, and then, suddenly see a new meaning, another way of reading. Such insights always excite me, create a little frisson in my brain, the way, I am told that metaphors do because to understand them, the brain has to use two separate places at once. I used to hear this little poem on Marilyn’s lips and see a trough in the stables. From now on, layered on top of that image, I will see the cataract and the mist, the little girl, watching and getting it down into words, repeating them to hold onto it all until she can understand and remember.