Speak, Memory. It’s a Nabokov title, sure, but it’s also a command many a poet has issued to himself. Or, if he believes in such things, his Muse.
Why? Because memory is about as fertile a field as you’ll find, especially if it lies fallow for a few years. This phenomenon is known as déjà vu, which is French for “What the hell just happened here?”
Give it some thought. You saw or heard or smelled or touched or tasted something that sent you back, H.G. Wells-like, in a time machine. Once, after tasting peanut butter, which I had not purchased for years, I was transported to my childhood where I ate the stuff almost every day, slathered with Welch’s grape jelly between two pieces of Wonder (Why I’m Eating This Crap) bread.
To show you what I mean about Memory and its best bud the Muse, notice how the poet Jeffrey Harrington sees something, has a startling flashback, and then tries to make sense of it through poetry.
It’s a simple, everyday act, which is good, but there’s something left unsaid, too, which is better. He’s sees his 19-year-old son drinking water directly from the tap, and it reminds him of his older brother — now dead — who used to do the same thing, decades before anything went wrong.
That’s it. Enough said. Sometimes a poem’s success lies as much in the unspoken as the spoken. Sometimes the mystery makes the reader “get it” more than any revelation would.
Give a listen and see what I mean:
“A Drink of Water”
by Jeffrey Harrison
When my nineteen-year-old son turns on the kitchen tap
and leans down over the sink and tilts his head sideways
to drink directly from the stream of cool water,
I think of my older brother, now almost ten years gone,
who used to do the same thing at that age;
and when he lifts his head back up and, satisfied,
wipes the water dripping from his cheek
with his shirtsleeve, it’s the same casual gesture
my brother used to make; and I don’t tell him
to use a glass, the way our father told my brother,
because I like remembering my brother
when he was young, decades before anything
went wrong, and I like the way my son
becomes a little more my brother for a moment
through this small habit born of a simple need,
which, natural and unprompted, ties them together
across the bounds of death, and across time …
as if the clear stream flowed between two worlds
and entered this one through the kitchen faucet,
my son and brother drinking the same water.