I’m sorry I haven’t been keeping the blog up very well recently: I’ve just had two more (five in all!) eye operations and they’ve been a tad distracting. But feel tons better now, and I even got enough of my act together to sort through a file drawer in my study this last weekend. That’s not a job I seek or welcome, so I usually wait until I can’t stuff even one more piece of paper into any of the files before I sit down with an enormous recycling bag to one side, and the shredder to the other. That stage – the not being able to cram in one more piece of paper – had, inarguably, been reached. I couldn’t put it off any longer.

Once I start, though, I rather enjoy the surprises and recollections as I sift through everything. Bank and credit card statements are the easy sort: everything before a certain date can be transferred to storage cases and labelled for relocation to the garage shelves where they can be forgotten for a few more years. But most of the other files carry emotional baggage, which is – duh! – why I’ve saved them in the first place. Sweet letters from dear departed friends; different translations of Cavafy’s Ithaca poem; cards from little restaurants in Venice and obscure Umbrian towns; and, I’m delighted to discover, the only known extant copy of the ‘Walking & Biking Guide to Historic Key West’.

So the sorting process brought lots of memories back – for things or people I’d more or less forgotten since the last time I looked. There are papers I can toss without a second thought, but lots of others I can’t bear to lose, even though I won’t look at them again for ages, and by the time I do I’ll probably be as surprised and delighted by their existence as I was yesterday. It’s uncomfortably like the old, cruel dementia joke: that the advantage of losing your short-term memory is that you can hide your own Easter eggs.

But the whole process reminded me of two wonderful poems about memory. Billy Collins’ ‘Forgetfulness’ has amused and moved me in just about equal measures since I first encountered it, and Kay Ryan’s ‘A hundred bolts of satin’ is a new discovery, and somewhat harsher in affect but equally remarkable.

Here they are. See which one resonates for you more closely.

FORGETFULNESS by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.


All you
have to lose
is one
and the mind
all the way back.
It seems
to have been
a train.
There seems
to have been
a track.
The things
that you
from the
abandoned cars
cannot sustain
life: a crate of
tractor axles,
for example,
a dozen dozen
clasp knives,
a hundred
bolts of satin—
perhaps you
more than
you imagined.

10 Responses to “Memory”

  1. Elizabeth Welsh Says:

    Pleased to hear you are recovering, Belinda! I am rubbish at sorting out paperwork. There’s always inevitably pages of poems in with the paperwork, and I spend the time reading them instead. I haven’t read Kay Ryan before – I was quite struck with the dark simplicity of ‘A Hundred Bolts of Satin’. I love the final lines. Don’t you think we all specialise more than we realise?

  2. Helen McKinlay Says:

    Hi Belinda,
    You have done very well to bounce back in so quickly. As for the filing drawer …yes I always find it hard too to throw out letters and cards and personal memorabilia. I tend to hide the special ones in places unexpected such as the bill file a sort of reward!
    I am a fan of Billy Collins too. And ‘A Hundred Bolts of Satin’ is splendid!

  3. Michelle Elvy Says:

    Oh, I do like this “A Hundred Bolts of Satin” — I love the train metaphor, that uncoupling at the beginning. Very nice.

  4. admin Says:

    I’m very amused that we all seem to hide poems in odd places, like discovering sweeties in a drawer. And yes, those last lines of Kay Ryan’s produce an extraordinary set of images. I’m still thinking about the specialisation idea.

  5. admin Says:

    Maybe we should start a club – or should it be a support group – of people who hide poetry? I used to carry a small book of poetry in my handbag (Les Murray’s “Poems the size of photographs”) which worked very well.

  6. admin Says:

    Good to hear from you Michelle, and thanks. And yes, it’s a haunting image, isn’t it?

  7. Lucille Says:

    That name of the river beginning with ‘L’ is haunting me now.

  8. admin Says:

    Lethe. For what it’s worth.

  9. Pat Says:

    Billy Collins reinforces for me the belief that poetry needs to be heard, not simply scanned by the mind’s eye. No one, in my opinion, reads Billy Collins as well as Billy Collins. I love The Lanyard too, among many others.

  10. admin Says:

    Yes, I agree that no one reads his poems as well as Billy Collins does, and he reads this one particularly well – but I actually think this poem works best when it’s read by (as you say) the mind’s eye.

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