Palimpsest Palinode: A Pilgrimage of the Aesthetic

She got good poems and bad poems, and she’ll swear on the Bible she can’t
tell which is which. I explain to her only the good poems are exactly true.

— John Gardner’s October Light

1. No truth but in things

I am sixteen and alone and my grandmother is dying, but this cannot be the first line of the poem. My mother has sent me out of the Health Care Center in Oakland where black elders have been abandoned by their family, where my grandmother is being nursed to the end of her illness and speaks to no one because she’s the only Chinese here. It’s Thanksgiving Day. A parade on a distant TV. A lunch of gravy and turkey, pureed for smooth swallowing. My mother has sent me to the car so I won’t have to watch her spoon soup for her mother, who said nothing to me while I stood at her bedside, too distracted save to yowl (ai-yaw, ai-yaw) in pain, jaws stretching wide to expose the skeleton inside, wax-yellow teeth jutting out as they will weeks later when we find her dead in the same bed, stuck in a final gasp. I’ll remember the soup my mother brought as a bowl of tears — but this is untrue, a romanticized anesthesia.

All language is anesthesia, concept-filters for a reality so intense or mundane our bodies can’t grip down on it. Memory is a language; that is, a reconfiguration.

Alone in the passenger seat, I scramble for a ballpoint pen and the car insurance sheets, the only paper I can find in the glove compartment. I am about to write my first poem, or my first urgent cry participating in what Shelley called “episodes of that great poem, which all poets… have built up since the beginning of the world.” My sentiment is fresh enough to stave off the sentimental, avoiding a self-pitying “I” in the poem. I collate a list of pure things, not for what they symbolize but for the atmosphere they rub against. Over her bed: the broken wall clock. The hallway smell of full diapers. Squirrel at the window in sequestered sunlight. The empty truck we passed coming here, its sign, Oranges 26cents, the hooded man walking ahead and shedding a trail of orange-peel crescents.

The poem, in small handwriting on paper that does not belong to me, is a drawbridge closing against what I have seen. Staring out the window at a gray parking lot, perception has suddenly decayed into a toxic event and the only safe place left is memory. Eliot writes in “The Music of Poetry” of “the inner unity which is unique to every poem, against the outer unity which is typical.” I understand this askew, and see that outer unity as not just typical but so massively intense (or chaotically mundane) that we need language as an anesthesia, as a concept-filter. Memory is a language; that is, a reconfiguration. Memory-training experts say we seldom “forget” things (as if memories decayed in half-lives), but rather we fail to experience things fully enough to remember them in the first place. So if you’re constantly running back to the house to double-check the front door’s lock, the simple cure is to be present-minded: picture your head as the doorknob, and that you’re locking your nose. The same goes for abstractions — convert a number into a vivid image and you’ll never forget it. Metaphor is naming power; its aliveness is the ownership of reality.

Information overload — numbness — is a moral buzzword today, but it’s nothing new. Numbness is anesthesia, which is distraction, which may be fear. In Portrait of the Artist, Joyce says, “Perhaps they had taken refuge in number and noise from the secret dread in their souls. But he, apart from them and in silence, remembered in what dread he stood of the mystery of his own body.” It’s a plastic refuge, Stephen Dedalus realizes here as he learns to distrust the reality taught and handed to him. But poetry, like the body itself, is a sweaty step outside of society’s timetable, a place in which language is stripped of automatic values. Poetry is building reality from bare syntax — a frightening responsibility.

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