Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Lisa Russ Spaar and the Leveling Effects of Memory

Lisa Russ Spaar’s poem "I Consider My Mother's Mind" makes me think of something that that has been suddenly and violently emptied after a long time of neglect, a wallet crammed with too many business cards, gummed encrusted post it notes, receipts, expired credit cards and coupons, small scraps of paper with phone numbers attached to first names whose faces you've forgotten. Or maybe a drawer in a the farthest end of the kitchen, just over the lower shelves where the heavy cooking irons are kept, with the evidence of a life lived for decades in the same four walls, with more receipts, creased photos, frayed or snapped rubber hands, recipes clipped from Family Circle, report cards, bank statements, more photographs, notes of congratulation and condolence, an overwhelming mass of paper work that has been confined and added to by a stern-fingered determination to consign these things to the margins, documents of no practical use which one keeps none the less and despite the clutter for fear that their presence and life force will be diminished, fall under erasure. This what struck me about the poem, that there is a great amount of unattended facts and figuration that have been stored, unrecorded, experience really unspoken, now faded, faint, vanishing with the failing of memory, whole chunks of decades missing between what is remembered not so much as memories but rather as sharp, clear, bright and sense-compelling parts of an incomplete narrative; there is the sense here of what the daughter hears an aging parent telling here, visualizing the details , hoping the tactile bits, the tangible references, can somehow become clear and full in the mind's capacity to form an oracular whole;



Stars of the Great and Small Bears,
lost in a cobalt padlock above Detroit,
the orient coruscations of car factories,
skating ponds, six-lane highways,
now lumbering across decades
into my childhood suburb, that rimed ruin—
picnic table, dispirited shucks and obeisant leeks of our winter garden, homunculus at the mind's edge--


Spaar’s narrator seems to be interiorizing hours of listening to the sort of wandering, diffuse, grasping monologues an elderly parent might drift into when trying to respond to simple , direct questions; the process of trying to remember what is nearly gone from recall creates intriguing associations that are verbalized and followed on their own. Soon the answer to the question is not the point, and one is left to confront a narrative that is being told, spoken before it fades and is lost with the dying brain matter. One is witness to a personality trying to recreate one's life , to remember and perhaps feel something from the past yet again before the last moments of coherence are over, and the daughter, finally, accepts , grudgingly brutal facts of what happens with aging, and attempts to see the terrain of the decades her mother mentions in various pockets of lucidity.

The landscape is an intense blur , a montage; Spaar captures the feeling of Detroit I remember flying into my hometown where one can, if fortunate enough to have a window seat, witness the industrial city and it's suburbs, a grey, flat spread of factories, suburban sprawl, highways the width of mighty rivers, a hard land to raise a family in; I am impressed with Spaar's masterful contrasting of elements with simple put details, the facelessness of a city stooped shouldered and hardened through bitter weather and economic disaster, and a terse description of a family garden that attempts to thrive regardless of a downbeat outlook. The human element is many-layered here, struggling through the impersonal forces of inevitability and insisting that such a life matters; the mother who speaks of her life in defiance of the loss of re-collective powers, the daughter who attempts to imagine her mother's life as full and real based on the fractured and collage quality of the recall, and a family giving the home a human, "homey" touch that expresses the need for an abode to be welcoming , even in a city as violent and embittered as Detroit.

At this point I get the sense that Spaar’s narrator has wandered the tableau she has mentally constructed from her mother’s tersely phrased murmurings, has allowed herself to feel a rush of sensations the streets, the factories, seasons and winter gardens might arise, and to become overwhelm, melancholic in what becomes a witnessing of another’s life caught in the movement of small-scale history, formed from coincidences of context and personal choice. There is a feeling of helplessness, of wanting to give warning and consul and coming to the sober realization that there is nothing to do with the past except remember, draw from it what lessons one can, and try to use the experiences as useful touchstones for living in the present tense. But living in the present tense, in the now of the noun, does not severe one from the past and the sway it holds over us, no matter how much be busy ourselves with hobbies and acquiring more material things we don’t need. Some almost forgotten thing will make the knees buckle, cause the eyes to blur with tearsthat form, something will remind you of who you are, what made you, and will make you feel vulnerable and sense regardless of the layers of maturity and autonomy we grant ourselves.

I can't return to you, though I believe you're calling me
from the polar house of hibernal fear
with its skirted vanity table, its angry mirror
& Bakelite brush, bristles up, still fleeced
with a child's hair, a wavering frequency
in the key of oblivion, mammalian, contracting.


This is the “Rosebud” scenario, where an insignificant detail, a banal trace of material good, arises and is amplified in the waking mind, setting forth a cascade of sensations and impressions that humble you inspite of the strength of your limbs or the power of your will. One learns , if one is fortunate , that the past is always present and constantly influencing the future. The death of one’s kin does not mean that they’ve moved out of our lives.