Saturday, August 21, 2004

Stink Memory

As if offering proof, my brain directs me to the bookshelf toward what I thought was Nabokov's Speak Memory but what turns out to be his Strong Opinions. What, then, was Speak, Memory ? Sartre's memoir ? I turn to Google, my 50-something's indispensible aide-memoire. Turns out that title is, appropriately enough, Les Mots, or The Words, the first things to leak out of the aging brain, as other things remain, seemingly indelible -- like the fact that I had a copy of The Words with me on the day my light blue VW bug ran out of gas as I drove home, one late morning, post-call, from my internship. Circa 1977.

An eidetic image of that wide, deserted suburban street in Framingham, Massachusetts remains, which I can embellish with the arrival of my husband/ex-husband-to-be, PMS, his camping trip delayed by having to rescue the absent-minded PT, who had failed to get her defunct gas gauge fixed. Les Mots bakes in the hot sun of the front seat of the little beached car.

I move the little magic figures around the stage.

PMS, short for Philip My Sparrow, pours gas into the little car and waxes eloquent on the topic of PT's selfishness, incompetence and improvidence.

"Fuck you, then," PT snarls. She grabs Sartre from the car, and stalks off, dumping the now never-to-be husband or ex husband, and, while we're at it, let's go for broke, quitting the internship.

Poof ! Everything vanishes, dissolving into an unbounded pea-soup fog of indeterminacy. Goodbye walk-in clinic ! Goodbye kitties ! Goodbye wonderful son and magnificent second husband ! Whoops ! There goes my computer ! And my backpack ! And my slippers, cell phone, stethoscope, wheee ! Good-bye ! Good-bye !

And hello what ?

Nevermind. That's the stuff of bad movies. Whose titles I forget. Was Tom Hanks in any of them ?

Have I even read Nabokov-it-turns-out's Speak, Memory for that matter ? A quick scan of the most likely bookshelves comes up empty. The bookshelves that, two decades and one move since their last methodical arrangement by genre, retain only small pockets of order. A cluster of modern novels here, a little knot of existentialists there beside a shadowy conspiracy of hard-boiled mysteries.

Entropy. The same thing that's addled my bookshelves is invading my brain. That thing, kindly called by neurologists benign senescent forgetfulness, that leads us to ask such burning questions as:

Remember that movie, the one starring what's his name ? You know, that guy ?

Cue James Merrill's "Losing The Marbles."

We've just returned from vacation. We stayed at a little resort in Falmouth where we've stayed several times over the past decade. It's got a pleasant little beach on the west facing side of the little oceanic armpit-of-Cape-Cod known as Buzzard's Bay. The sand is clean and white, and the beach is covered with white chaise longues, and blue and white umbrellas. The water is blue and tame. As we walked on the beach one night I reflected on how my experience of the beach was colored by my memories of it, and how my memories of it were in turn influenced by the several poems I'd written about it.

Now what was that Nabokov said on the topic of memory and experience and place ?

Never mind.

One night this past week we walked a bit down a Falmouth Center side street after dinner. It was peaceful and warm and quiet and suddenly some kind of creature appeared, running down the sidewalk across the street. It was too large to be a cat, and its gait -- a kind of skipping or mincing lope -- was not quite dog. It was slender, long-legged and it's tail was oddly cantilevered -- a somewhat bushy inverted U -- in a way that seemed neither feline nor canine. What was it ? A fox ? A coyote ? For several days we laced our laconic, vacation conversations with speculation. Then, one night, a small, ruddy creature dashed across the road in front of our car, unmistakably fox. Unmistakably different from the ghostly, loping quadruped in Falmouth center.

All of which led us back to the skunk we'd seen waddling across the hotel beach almost ten years ago.

Which in turn led me to the poem below. Which I hadn't read in years. Did I write this ? Or these ? They hover in a limbo between familiarity and strangeness, like a dubious memory, like lost sloughed-off bits of self.

Sea Skunk

He pads across the beach at midnight
weaving through regiments of chaises longues,
skirting the sea’s desultory recruitments,
as if following something delicious and precise.
One ripe tendril seems to tease him onward.

Behind him extravagant volumes billow on the wind
like an invisible columbine whose bells and spurs
nod, sway, insinuate through the ranks of salt,
flowering, lingering aloft
between the dipper and the channel buoy.

From here he is all black waddle
a fat soul slung between nose and plume,
a pilgrim, practically a poet,
a creature of generosity
and taste. I pause to read the air

while Pharos smoulders in disapprobation
against the studded wall of the horizon,
glowering between tense, paced drags of light:
he has seen it, seen it all before,
and smelled it, too, St. Elmo’s Fire,

sizzling along the yardarm, the ozone
wafting off the blue-edged corposant,
wet pitch, rum and shipwreck,
as delirium drenches the rigging
and True North cedes to siren. Yes,

the oldest spells are taken by the nose.
One drop of musk distilled from a hanged gob’s sweat,
a pinch of ash from an immolated virgin,
and voila, ave ignis stella ravishes everything
from the sea lanes, to the sky’s dot-to-dot.

Poor Skunk, do you ever tire
of pouring out your soulful redolence ? Or envy
your namesake cabbage, the cowled and foetid one
who squats in the swamp ? Only the palest ignis fatuus
ever limns his leaves, and, most of the time, he scans.


I was that poet, once, that skunk, following delicious tendrils of scent everywhere, slung between my nose and the trailing plume of my poems. Poor skunk. I fear she's gone. Was she roadkill ? Did she finally heed the sea's desultory, malign recruitments and dive into the pre-verbal drink ? I miss her fluency and extravagance. Her wordy generosity.

What's left ?

A little beach covered in me-wrack. And the drip drip drip of words as they leak out, one by one, and stream, first in a rivulet and then a torrent, toward the sea.

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