Monday, September 6, 2010

the country i remember, part i


It’s autumn in the country I remember.


This is the opening line of Trumbull Stickney’s poem “Mnemosyne,” an elegiac meditation dedicated to the titular Titaness, the Greek personification of memory and mother of the nine Muses. A few weeks ago I memorized this poem with the help of my friend, Jason Daniel Baker. Learning poetry, like learning to sing a song, helps me to experience the musical and emotional effect of a poem's craft in a way that is visceral, rather than intellectual. I'm going to start saying/writing "learning" rather than "memorizing," because memorization smacks most of rote duty and accumulated detail (dare I say trivia?), and less of the dynamic process to which memorization is but an aid.

I bet many of us can recite a few lines we were forced to regurgitate as kids--let us chant "Full fathom five thy father lies" or "Whose woods these are I think I know" in chorus!--without necessarily having a sense of what the lines mean to us, if they mean anything at all. I know this has been true for me when I learn by rote, rather than by heart--two clich├ęs that touch on the canyon that lies between knowledge acquired through instruction, and the richer stuff we become acquainted with when instruction shines its small, pointed light into the dim universe surrounding us. Much like a star, instruction can lead us to discoveries, but it cannot illuminate the entire field of our experience at once. (Even the sun only touches on one half of the Earth at a time.)

In the process of learning a poem, I notice things I don't notice on the page. In the case of "Mnemosyne," for example, how Stickney's shifty verb tenses spin a web of emotional resonance. One of the most striking tense shifts in the poem comes in the penultimate stanza:

But that I knew these places are my own,
I'd ask myself how came such wretchedness to cumber
The Earth, and I to people it alone.

(Lines 20-22)

In line 20, the speaker acknowledges that, in spite of the contrasts between the country he romantically recalls in the poem's tercets, and the destroyed, desolate space he witnesses in the present-tense refrains, both "countries" exist in the perpetual present of his memory. Regardless of whether the mountains he gestures toward are where he once "lived" (see line 16), line 20's jostling return to the present reminds the reader that all the elegies ever written are incapable of erasing the eternal return played out in our memory. Mnemosyne, as an invocation of memory and artistic birth, shows us the two sides of Stickney's inspiration——the sorrowful corners, the persistent longings, the compulsion toward beauty, its succour and inadequacy. Even as the speaker bemoans the loss and decay of his mythic country (political, geographic, however you may read that), it belongs to him as much as he belongs to it.

These thoughts lead me to ask whether national and regional identity are not similarly dynamic, and impossible, relationships.

....to be continued....