Memory has been much in my mind recently, at least partly on account of reading poems to people with loss of memory. And with gratitude to my good friends at the Poetry Society for publishing my description of doing this, in Poetry News.
It really is something to think about, when the experience of hearing a poem remembered from childhood lights up someone who remembers very little of the here and now – a person for whom there isn’t much in the present tense, but for whom the past is rich. So it’s not at all the case that they don’t have memory or are lacking in memories.
All somewhat paradoxical, as the more distant memories might be thought to be harder to reach. But entering this strange land, we encounter many an unexpected phenomenon, such as the story of a cat and an owl sailing a boat for a year and a day before marrying, slithy toves that gyre and gimble in the wabe and a walrus addressing an assemblage of oysters. The farthest away memories are almost the clearest. So no one should be surprised at what might be readily recalled. Especially when memorising poems used to be the norm.
My generation (whatever I mean by that) wasn’t required to learn poetry by heart. But when a poem I was reading was picked up and recited by someone living with dementia, so that I could almost stop and let her carry on by herself, I thought it would do me good to memorise some poetry. And this in turn had me thinking a bit more about memory. I can now recite by heart several of the poems I’ve found to be favourites, from Memory Cafes. Of course, the maintained eye contact helps a lot, but more importantly the memorised poem has entered into me, become part of me – is now a memory of my own.
Which has had me bringing to mind some of my own childhood memories. Certain things that happened considered ‘normal’ now seem hard to believe. Yes, there was corporal punishment, eight-year old children could be sent away to boarding school and a child not much older could make a long train journey with changes, completely on their own.
But no, I was recalling more mundane things – everyday family life, such as shopping in our local town on a Saturday. I’m sure others will remember the Pedoscope – a standard piece of equipment in shoe shops, which used X-rays to show how well the shoe fitted the foot. We all enjoyed the green moving image of our own foot and toe bones, with a mask port-hole for the shoe salesman and another for the parent, as well as one for the child. The feet were the main focus for the radiation, but there was a scattering in all directions so that everyone, especially the shop assistant operating the machine throughout the day, was exposed to this hazard. Children, by the way, are about twice as radio-sensitive as adults. Interestingly, although the first warnings appeared in 1950, it wasn’t until the end of that decade that the toxic Pedoscope went its way… but that’s another story.
Whenever it was, I can remember that brown monster well – its shape, the steps, those port-holes, the rigid sandals on the carpet, the Startrite ad. of the two children setting off in their new shoes down the road– but best now to turn to my poem, which has another distant memory connection which I allude to at the end. The effects of radiation are sometimes not seen until many years, perhaps decades, have past. Memories can be imprinted deep, not just in the deep heart’s core, but also in the very marrow.
Across a soft carpet, an Alpine meadow,
I see myself in stiff-soled sandals
approach a miniature mountain range –
subsidiary peaks, topped off by a summit
with steps for children.
There are foothills for the taller ones, grown-ups simply stand –
a place for everyone upon this bakelite ziggurat.
So I ascend, to press my face into that mask
and peer through eerie green. Is it water –
what’s inside a mountain?
There, far below, two tapering sets
of spindles fan in semi-circles.
Are they comfy? They move in agreement.
The magic mountain hums, streams of light
spill out from cracks.
Time for me to descend with care
in authorised shoes with fretwork sunsets,
un-creased leather and buttery soles
which now are mine. Start right
then you’ll travel far…
two children step off, leaving the shoe shop
high street and town. Far behind
on their perspective road, the brown mountain
plugged in the wall. That altar’s long gone,
along with those who
paid obeisance. It left a footprint in the pile,
the pressure of a setting sun, for a little while.
Deep inside the marrow’s darkness
descendants’ descendants may yet recall
the power inside the mountain.