Posts Tagged ‘Memory’

Objects and memory

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

There are certain small objects packed away in a box in the attic, or tucked into the back of a desk drawer, that I will probably never get rid of, and this poem by Sharon Olds shows brilliantly the reason why. In “Toth Farry” (the spelling borrowed from a note her child once wrote to the tooth fairy) she writes of finding her children’s baby teeth after many years “in the back of the charm box, in a sack.” The poem is delightful to read for its language alone: Olds’ precise description of the teeth, now falling into shards, and her comparing them to utensils like shovel and adz.

But what struck me most was these lines:

…and the colors go from
salt, to bone, to pee on snow, to
sun on pond-ice embedded with twigs
and chipped-off skate blade. One cuspid
is like the tail of an ivory chough
on my grandmother’s whatnot in a gravure on my mother’s
bureau in my father’s house in my head…

That one baby tooth brings forth a whole chain of associations, linked images that come to mind faster than you can describe them.

Reading these lines made me think of my own baby teeth, and of my sons’, and how very tiny those teeth look once they come out. And it reminded me of why the things in my own treasure-box are still there.

Odd notions

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

It’s been a long time since I read Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine, but one short episode sticks in my mind. An old woman, Mrs. Bentley, begins chatting with three children who pause by her yard on a summer afternoon. One is Tom Spaulding, one of the main characters of the novel; the others are two girls, Jane and Alice. Mrs. Bentley mentions having been their age once, and the girls’ reaction is startling.

‘My mother says it isn’t nice to fib,’ said Jane.
‘Of course it isn’t. It’s very bad,’ agreed Mrs. Bentley.
‘And not to listen to fibs.’
‘Who was fibbing to you, Jane?’
Jane looked at her and then glanced nervously away.
‘You were.’

The fib, it turns out, was in claiming that she was once a girl like Jane and Alice. Mrs Bentley then tries to convince the girls by showing them some of the things she’s saved: a hair comb and ring she once wore, a set of jacks, a photo of herself at age seven. They simply don’t believe her. They laugh and run away with her things.

The idea that old people were once young is an odd notion for a child, one that takes an imaginative leap to comprehend. Bradbury’s treatment of the incident makes it quite striking: the children’s sure and stubborn disbelief in the very possibility that old people could have been young, their open mockery of Mrs. Bentley.

The story turns into a sort of fable about the folly of clinging to the past. But it’s also a fine example of an author getting inside a child’s head, bringing into sharp relief the brightness and strangeness of the world as seen through a child’s eyes.

Lame literature

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I was prompted to get back to this too-long-neglected blog by a friend’s posting on Facebook, a link to a site called Awful Library Books. It has an amusing selection of truly odd titles that were actually found in real libraries.

Good books tend to survive, one way or another, but unfortunately bad ones do too. Often they’re just forgotten, but they do reappear at yard sales, in thrift stores, in used bookstores, and in dusty corners of people’s houses. And, judging by Awful Library Books, some linger on library shelves despite being outdated or just plain silly.

Some bad books are so bad they’re funny. Some are loathsome. Others, especially books you enjoyed uncritically as a child, seem clumsily written and just plain uninteresting when you come back to them as an adult (apologies to anyone who still likes reading the old Nancy Drew books).

I’ve got a few Awful Examples on my  own shelves. The thing is, once they’re on the bookshelf they tend to stay there. Where else would they go? Who’d want them? Besides, I maintain a certain affection for some of these books.

There’s one called Freddy the Fox, which has been around since I was five. It survived several years in my parents’ garage, the pages are stained and it still smells a bit. The story is not particularly interesting; it has neither the whimsy of Winnie the Pooh nor the musical language of Margaret Wise Brown’s books, but I keep it because it was with this book that I learned to read. So, although some books have come and gone, this one’s going to stay for now.

Cautionary tales

Friday, March 19th, 2010

H_Hoffmann_Struwwel_01

Struwwelpeter is a classic example of the cautionary tale. It’s a collection of illustrated stories in verse showing misbehaving children and the dreadful consequences they suffer. First published in 1845, its original title was Lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder mit 15 schön kolorierten Tafeln für Kinder von 3-6 Jahren (Funny Stories and Whimsical Pictures with 15 Beautifully Coloured Panels for Children Aged 3 to 6).

Maybe I was born in the wrong era. Although I find the book amusing now, as a child I found the pictures ghastly, especially the ones accompanying “Daumenlutscher” (Thumb-sucker) and “Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug,” a story of a girl who plays with matches and is burned to death. The final picture in this story shows the girl’s two cats beside her ashes, crying a great pool of tears.

It’s the illustrations that really stay in my mind, probably because I could not read German as a child. But I didn’t have to know German to understand the message of the stories: look what happens to misbehaving children!

I was prompted to read Struwwelpeter again, oddly enough, after reading Martyrs Mirror for the first time.

Martyrs Mirror is one of those books, I suspect, that many people know about but considerably fewer people actually read (so I was mildly surprised to find that the public library’s sole copy was checked out). It is a huge work, over a thousand pages, with 104 illustrations. The full title is The Bloody Theater, or, Martyrs’ Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only Upon Confession of Faith, and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Saviour, From the Time of Christ to the Year A.D. 1660. It was compiled by Thieleman J. van Braght, a Dutch Mennonite pastor, in 1660.

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Good sounds

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Why do so few people read poetry these days? Maurice Mierau, in his Winnipeg Free Press column, has one answer. (By the way, I am pleased, not to mention impressed, that the Free Press actually has a monthly poetry column in its book section. Wonder how many other newspapers can say the same.) Poets, Maurice says, tend to read their work with a complete lack of expression, and seem to think sophisticated poetry shouldn’t have rhyme or rhythm. It’s one of those things everybody knows– “everybody except anyone who published before the 20th century, which means 80 per cent of poetry in English. Everybody except Bob Dylan, Robert Frost and any half-decent rap artist.” Audiences, he says, “will never stop yearning for poems that sound good.”

There’s a reason people will always be attracted to poetry like this. Patterns are an aid to memory; a poem with rhyme or rhythm is more likely to stick in your mind than one that has none. I think– and there’s probably theoretical writing out there to confirm this– that it has to do with poetry’s connection to music, and music’s connection to the body. Just as words arranged in patterns are easier to remember, so are words set to music. That’s why I can still recite large chunks of Dr. Seuss, even though my sons don’t read those books much any more. That’s why we all learned the alphabet with the help of a song, and why people can remember advertising jingles that they haven’t heard since the age of eight.

For some recent poetry that sounds good, I recommend Domain by Barbara Nickel, The Office Tower Tales by Alice Major, and Noble Gas, Penny Black by David O’Meara.