Graham Shea: Memory

May/June 2019, Memory, Poetry

Poet’s Statement: This poem was inspired by an avalanche class in which I learned the many different types of snow, and how to read the history of a winter season in the layers of the snowpack. While snow layers are dynamic, they also contain a fixed record of memory, like the rings of a tree or the fossils in layers of earth. 

Naturally, we humans may think of memory as something contained and encoded in our brains—as something we carry with us. But the woven synapses that fire to bring back images from our past don’t necessarily fire on their own. They often depend on us being in a certain place, stronger in its power to make us recall than even our own willpower to access our past.

Instead of computer-like encoding, I like to think of memories as laid out on the ground in the places they happened. When we spend a lot of time in one place, those layers accumulate, and we receive the gift of timeless retrospect. In one instant, we can see our childhood selves playing in the same space our adult selves wander, like a double-exposure film clip.

This anachronistic vision has given me an appreciation for the connections a given place creates between far-separated times in my life. Those connections between layers may be redemptive, ironic, sad, or joyful. They also imbue a certain cumulative meaning to a place, and shape what I plan to do there in the future. I’m given the power to continue writing the story of a place, layer by layer, page by page. 

“Anamnesis” may be an unfamiliar term to some. At its most basic level, it means merely “recollection”. But the term has layers of its own. In Platonic philosophy, it referred to a kind of memory we are born with from a past existence. Psychological theorists today are exploring a rough analog they call “genetic memory.” I believe a third analog exists in a spiritual sense, that of longing for something we were so deeply formed to desire that the object feels like a memory. We must borrow foreign words for this like sehnsucht (German) and saudade (Portuguese). 

I hope these reflections lay down another layer of meaning on top of the previous Fragments posts on place.

Happy reading,
Graham

 

Memory

With winter wind come the dusty white fragments,
Borne out of the vacuous alpine chill as falling stars–
Scepters, scintillating shafts and diamonds interlaced,
Entangling, entwined along the pinnacle crags. 

I reach my hand slowly into the ethereal blanket
And pour out its weightless sand from an open palm.
Drifting flakes instantly flurry to fill the trough 
And round the little mound with renewed softness.

The pines around the ridge grow gray with hoar,
Pointing into the wind with whispering fingers
Too quiet to reveal the secret they all descry
In the distance. Soon they are white, all white.

Through the receding clouds night calls up flightless 
Feathers to stretch and catch the morning’s sun
And fling its sparks to set the ice aflame with
Light before they bow finally to its warmth.

Storm and clear, night and day this place receives
Afresh each fine dance of crystal wind upon it;
But here and there in secret places I can discover
The one laid upon the other in gentle anamnesis.

Even when crystal streams have sipped the last drops
From this peak to slake the waking summer swelter,
You and I will spread a blanket upon the ground, and
Lay upon it cheese and music and an enduring hour or two.

And beneath that hour I will still find the summers
Of sixth and seventh grade with their campfires and
Milky stars and chilling dips in the lake below, with the
Other boys whose company swirled around me with contentment.

And beneath those I still stand as a child next to my father,
Saluting for a photograph my mother took, while my brother,
In a yellow shirt with Popsicle stains, grinned through missing 
Teeth, and my tiny sister grinned obliviously from a backpack.

 

Landscape with Snow

“Landscape with Snow” by Van Gogh

 

Graham Shea lives in Quincy, CA and enjoys freelance writing, outdoor adventures, and many different artistic media. He holds a BA in journalism from Pepperdine University, and an MPhil in theology from the University of Cambridge.

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