How do we experience memory? How do we sit with the things that have happened to us vis-a-vis how we remember them? How is memory different from history, and how do we separate the threads of what we know and what we’ve learned?

Is home a place we make, or a place we go back to, and what is the difference?

And what about remembering?

Years ago, M. and I corresponded about the connection between time and water. I wrote, I have always thought that time was both a stream and a waterfall. An endless body of water that connects like Escher’s stairs. Sometimes everything is calm, and then you somehow reach the end and you get this rush, this fright, and you plunge and you scream and you fall, and then you realize it’s not the end, that it is beginning, again.

Perhaps time is a place, too. Perhaps a burial ground, or an attic, or a bodega of transient things. I’ve lost things to time. Perhaps myself.

Theories of Time and Space
Natasha Trethewey

You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one—
by—one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion—dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on a mangrove swamp—buried
terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry—tome of memory
its random blank pages. On the dock

where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:

the photograph—who you were—
will be waiting when you return

(from The Writer’s Almanac)

You would love it here, is what I wrote on most of the postcards I sent last week. I realise now that that could’ve been a waste of space, a waste of words. Because that is the point of postcards, isn’t it. I am sending you everything I love in this moment, hoping that a piece of paper will convey the enormity of all of what I’m feeling. I walked around the city trying to locate the post, carrying my heart in my pocket, my letter naked and for everyone to see—from the clerk to the postman to your neighbour, and every roving eye that lands on my handwriting, before it finally gets to you.

You would love it here, I wrote. But what I really meant: I fell in love with a city, dammit, and I am leaving the next day and I am shattered and I don’t want to go which is why I also wrote myself saying everything is worth it to be here saying you will be here again someday saying you have been here and it is good and would you please forgive yourself for not being able to take with you everything you love—

Aimless Love
Billy Collins

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.

This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.

The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

No lust, no slam of the door –
the love of the miniature orange tree,
the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor –
just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.

But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.

After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.

Going through some old mail, as I am wont to do. In one letter, I asked: “What does it mean to be a person? A good person? What does it mean to be happy?”

I wrote in another letter: “I am writing to say that you’ve made an impact in my life, and like all things I find amazing and true I want to run around in circles waving my arms in the air while shouting THIS IS SPECTACULAR! DON’T LEAVE ME! I AM INSUFFERABLE BUT PERHAPS YOU LIKE ME! THIS IS FANTASTIC! DON’T STOP BEING AMAZING! I don’t think my face will betray that ever, but it’s what I’m thinking anyway.”

Also: “Please don’t discard me, I’ll be a curmudgeon again in the morning, which is a few hours from now. If we haven’t seen each other in awhile, I miss you. If we haven’t seen each other yet, I miss you just as well. Truth.”

And another: “I was almost whole. The experience was…ethereal. I still think about it from time to time. Especially when I feel like jumping over a cliff. Or sleeping and never waking up again. That night, I felt like I could do this, you know? This being human thing.”

I am reading poems, too. Because they are prayers. Because they are anchors.

The Poplar
Richard Aldington

Why do you always stand there shivering
Between the white stream and the road?

The people pass through the dust
On bicycles, in carts, in motor-cars;
The waggoners go by at dawn;
The lovers walk on the grass path at night.

Stir from your roots, walk, poplar!
You are more beautiful than they are.

I know that the white wind loves you,
Is always kissing you and turning up
The white lining of your green petticoat.
The sky darts through you like blue rain,
And the grey rain drips on your flanks
And loves you.
And I have seen the moon
Slip his silver penny into your pocket
As you straightened your hair;
And the white mist curling and hesitating
Like a bashful lover about your knees.

I know you, poplar;
I have watched you since I was ten.
But if you had a little real love,
A little strength,
You would leave your nonchalant idle lovers
And go walking down the white road
Behind the waggoners.

There are beautiful beeches
Down beyond the hill.
Will you always stand there shivering?

Here on my desk staring at the work that matters. Pages and pages of words, and I am deliberating on what needs doing. Of course a poem is never over, of course. But the manuscript exists.

Place to Be
Robert Creeley

Days the weather sits
in the endless sky,
the clouds drifting by.

The winter’s snow,
summer’s heat,
same street.

Nothing changes
but the faces, the people,
all the things they do

‘spite of heaven and hell
or city hall—
Nothing’s wiser than a moment.

No one’s chance
is simply changed by wishing,
right or wrong.

What you do is how you get along.
What you did is all it ever means.

I took the day slowly. Reminded myself of the reality, of the ground beneath me.

At the entrance to the temple, a tiger was climbing down the mountain. It means strength; I read that somewhere. Back home, the cold from the stone floor seeps through my skin.

To stay means to be strong, too.

A Litany for Survival
Audre Lorde

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak
we are afraid our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive

Sifting through my notes, journal entries hastily scribbled on pieces of paper and stuffed in my bag to be re-examined later. Business cards from shops and places I’ve eaten. Brochures. Receipts. Maps. Itineraries and tickets. Trying to trace my way back, trying to build a narrative. Where I’ve been, what I did, who I was with.

S. slept for twenty-one hours after we arrived. We’re both exhausted like we’ve never been. I wonder if she feels the loss keenly now, or if the hours back home are filled with family, and finding your place again in the scheme of things.

I listen to my father talk about what’s happened while I was gone. The world revolving still. I am trying to be here.

only the crossing counts
C.D. Wright

It’s not how we leave one’s life. How go off
the air. You never know do you. You think you’re ready
for anything; then it happens, and you’re not. You’re really
not. The genesis of an ending, nothing
but a feeling, a slow movement, the dusting
of furniture with a remnant of the revenant’s shirt.
Seeing the candles sink in their sockets; we turn
away, yet the music never quits. The fire kisses our face.
O phthsis, o lotharian dead eye, no longer
will you gaze on the baize of the billiard table. No more
shooting butter dishes out of the sky. Scattering light.
Between snatches of poetry and penitence you left
the brumal wood of men and women. Snow drove
the butterflies home. You must know
how it goes, known all along what to expect,
sooner or later…the faded cadence of anonymity.
Frankly, my dear, frankly, my dear, frankly

First published in Slate, 22 December 1999.

Everybody is asking me why I am not myself. I want to laugh—I haven’t been myself for quite some time now. Let’s try a few years, even. There’s been a lot of debate inside my head where I currently am, or where I’ve been, or where I’m off to. It’s just the body that remains. A refusal, maybe. Or the last remaining anchor to what is physical.

There’s work to do, my calendar reminds me. My inbox reminds me. My desk reminds me. My wallet reminds me. The day reminds me, the week that was, the week that will be. It’s time to go back.

My knees ache. I remember walking and walking and walking, a map in my hands, the possibilities in my head. I am not here. I am not myself.

The Art of Disappearing
Naomi Shihab Nye

When they say Don’t I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

This is from Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Far Corner Books, 1995.