Protect Me From My Intentions: Notes on Language, Memory, and Imagination

Protect Me From My Intentions: Notes on Language, Memory, and Imagination

 

The old tune beckons, sets the river picnic, marshals the childhood parades.

 

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Today is made-up in yesterdays, slightly better coiffed, fragrant for an occasion, an event, some gusty balcony or blue garden where something is said that embodies exactly what can be said. Exactly how. But it does not come. In its place, there must always be things we did not specially want to say, things that shrink from the moment’s clarion.

 

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How to distinguish between remembering and imagining. Our imaginative acts derive from experience, both in mind and body. The body’s mind, the mind’s body. There can be no amnesiac art, and isn’t it imagination that prompts us to say to another, regarding a shared experience, that one “doesn’t remember it that way”? The tone of a past conversation with a friend you haven’t seen in years might be playful in her memory, ominous in yours. Interpretation disperses its interpreters. Imagine your friend saying that she remembers the conversation well, right down to its superficial details, like the fact, for instance, that you were wearing an orange cardigan and the streets were jewelled with spring rain. You smile and inform her that you’ve never owned an orange cardigan. It was green, you say, and you know because you still have it, though it doesn’t get much wear these days. Your friend’s error is not a simple one. She has a distinct memory of the cardigan but in a different color—a color she herself has imprinted on the memory. Moreover, the orange overlay is not just a slip in her mind’s eye, but a kind of portal for the memory itself: the orange ushers her into the conversation and repopulates the scene, the details of which are otherwise accurate. You say you remember the rain, you remember wondering if you’d left the bedroom window open. And so the imagined color allows her access to a verifiable reality, but now, when she tries to restore the cardigan to its actual green, the latches come undone. The green is an imposition, eroding the very scene to which it verily belongs. The imaginative act preserves reality by changing it. The orange is necessary for your friend’s reconstruction of the scene. Otherwise, she might’ve forgotten what you were wearing altogether. She might’ve forgotten the entire day, all the many days when she smiled faintly at the sight of a traffic cone, a child’s parka, a bowl of clementines, and imagined you wearing your signature color.

 

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To write is to set linguistic elements in motion. A finely tuned orbit. To read is to set oneself in motion with these elements. William Carlos Williams, Modernist poet par excellence, expresses it differently though no less sympathetically—“A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words”—and it does feel mechanistic at times. Children are often taught poems and stories in the same way that biology students learn anatomy. Imagery, allusion, perspective, rhyme. Aorta, cerebellum, retina, tibia. The more compelling and challenging part of biology is not the identification of parts per se, but how the parts engage one another to form complex systems. Understanding the systems takes a lifetime of applied expertise, and even then, there will be ruptures, contradictions, and utter mysteries. Systemic change is written in to the system. Of course, our taxonomic urges only provide so much pleasure, so it’s no surprise that many students find close-reading to be both tedious and wildly inconsistent. The earth always faces the same side of moon, however illuminated. Therefore, to truly behold the moon requires more than simple observation. We must imagine and project the side we cannot see, the side we know is there. The great texts are, at most, half-lit. We identify a “new” animal based on the mental cache of animal parts that we know. Every text exists as an exchange between readers and writers whose roles are never entirely stable. Writers are their own first readers. Readers finish (and refinish) what writers begin to say.

 

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Or is writing a book an act of depletion? If yes, what exactly is being depleted? If no, how does the writer finish?

 

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Consider the following sentence: I have a ton of shit to do before I leave. Grammatically, if you remove the prepositional phrase “of shit,” then the sentence will still carry its basic meaning, since the phrase is subordinated by the noun (ton) that it (the phrase) describes: I have a ton to do before I leave. But imagine rewriting the sentence with the following construction: I have to get my ________ done before I leave. No one I know, or almost no one, would fill in this blank with the word “ton.” If you did, it would indicate that you were either (A) still low on the learning curve of English usage or (B) being cheeky. However, consider this structurally similar sentence: I have a plate of meatloaf to finish before I leave. Here, you could imagine someone rewriting it to say “I have to finish my plate…” or “I have to finish my meatloaf…” and either would pass colloquial scrutiny. But in the case of “a ton of shit” or any of its common variants (a ton of stuff, a ton of things, a ton of work, etc.), we’re not actually dealing in the standard rules of prepositional phrasing. Instead, “a ton of” works like an unhyphenated phrasal adjective. It’s like a synonym for “many,” except it also works in the singular whereas “many” does not (e.g., try telling someone, preferably over lunch, that you have “many shit to do before you leave”). The closest synonym would be the phrase “a lot of,” which of course presents the same dodgy construction. Ultimately, the phrase’s use value excuses its grammatical ambiguity. We know what others mean in a tone that ranges from crude charm to flippancy to frustration. It passes without much fuss. Maybe we even kind of like it, we do, in which case its use value depends on its ambiguity. A parable.

 

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We are adulterated—this is a first condition, being human in a humanized world.

 

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The post in postmodern signals the sensibility of writing in an aftermath. At the turn of the 20th century, mass industrialization permanently changed the form and function of agrarian communities, and shortly after, the Great War and Spanish Flu pandemic killed an estimated 55 million people—three percent of the world population—in just five years. By 1920, the average American life expectancy had regressed by ten years. (If you’re in a descriptive-atrocity kind of mood, it’s all just a simple Google search away.) The great Modernist works anointed this ravaged, fragmented world and we still hear the echoes, we are still in the aftermath, though the forms (bureaucracy) and manifestations (technology) are much better at hiding and diversifying their traumas. The irony often associated with postmodernism is sometimes handled by both reader and writer alike as if it were an acquired aftertaste or a cocktail constructed only for the aftertaste. As if it were not about the text itself, but the posture and inflection we use to account for it. To my mind, this at least partially explains why postmodernism, as a term, has become a kind of stylistic flag, an attitude, a watermark. This misses the sensibility’s greatest strength: irony as the purest expression of an aftermath that many writers seem eager to forget. Legend has it that the late scholar and poet Allen Grossman used to lambaste contemporary writers—especially if they achieved any whiff of mainstream viability—with the imperative: “Stop pretending that Modernism didn’t happen!” In heeding Grossman’s advice, the postmodern writer steers clear of irony’s most insidious expressions—clever ambivalence and coy association—and instead embraces both reading and writing as activities shot through with dramatic irony. The world outpaces us always, and so we resign ourselves to generalizations. This extends to the reading act itself: in fiction and drama, we look for characterization and conflict. In poetry, we crave imagery and epiphany. Above all, we want a distinct urgency. Of course there are exceptions—whole literary movements and sub-movements that aim to prove otherwise, but I’m speaking in broad strokes of what the mainstream literary transaction does. Consequently, when we read we’re aware that we’ve experienced this kind of knowing before—why not, then, make it explicit in the text? Why not let the text enact not just its particular discoveries, but the history of those discoveries that we’ve been linking together since our first bedtime story? This is where metatextuality, intertextuality, and a whole palette of allusive strategies come to bear. For the postmodernist, this is the dramatic irony of every reading act, right down to the new meatloaf recipe you found online (and can nonetheless understand and follow). We cannot pretend to be Adam, giving the animals their first, enduring names. We’re more like Herodotus or Ovid, where imagination centers on previous imaginative acts, of which only the smallest fraction is ours.

 

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To utter is to assert—not oneself, but one’s location.

 

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One function of a phrase like “bird in a tree” is to provide readers the imaginative license to see or hear their bird, the one of association. Or not to, and to maintain a generic individuation, ripe for context. The phrase accommodates readerly choice; it does not choose for itself (excepting the more general decision that they be birds in the tree and not some other thing). And yet, readers will not see or hear just any bird. Context is a protean history, and still, there are limits. Consider: how many readers encounter the phrase “bird in a tree” and see or hear chickens? Consider: Proteus cannot change into all possible forms, but only the forms that he can imagine.

 

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Of all the words or phrases that can hinder, cripple, or flat-out destroy imaginative curiosity, is any more lethal than the word about? How often have we heard it asked (sometimes by ourselves) of a certain film or story or play or poem or pretty much any rhetorical creation out there: “What’s it about?” Poets in particular love to hate this question, especially when directed at their own work, and they have their reasons. To attempt to say what a poem is about is to tacitly agree that it can be paraphrased—paraphrase being the sacred cow of conversational dynamics. “Get the point!” an impatient listener remarks; or, in a pang of self-consciousness, a storyteller says, “Anyway, long story short… .” The idea here is that the-thing-to-be-communicated exists in some irreducible, perfected form, and the gifted storyteller is one who consistently touches on or adumbrates that form. None of this is particularly insightful or new or urgent—it’s pretty easy to tell eloquence from crudity, concision from prolixity. The problem is that poems are not generally interested in communicating one thing. Judging poetic quality is often an exercise in ascertaining how many avenues of feeling and cognition the poem has laid before us. Whether we as readers choose this avenue or that is not finally the poet’s concern. In other words, we often call a poem great when we sense a proliferation of potential meanings—all of them valid, none of them absolute. As readers, we begin to feel ourselves in the presence of a wondrous paradox: the great poem is, on the one hand, palpably concrete—we feel its depth and range, its rhythms and syncopations, its tonal flux; on the other hand, the great poem is inexhaustible—a measurable thing that exceeds all measure. That which imparts solidity and infinity at the same time.

 

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A test of faith and intentionality—imagine that the following propositions are true: (1) There is a god (for the sake of simplicty, let’s go ahead and define it as a higher-order being that permeates the world and resides at the source of creation), and (2) There is no afterlife of any kind.

 

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If it haunts the daydream, is it thinking?

 

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How Wittgenstein’s Tractatus proceeds as a logical proof of Locke’s original formulation in the Essay: that people misuse and misappropriate language to such a degree that philosophical arguments consist mostly of lexical disputes surrounding the terms of the argument. Until we find a way to communicate philosophy without the use of language—a kind of totalizing picture-book—language itself will be part of the engagement. It is the same in poetry, and happily so.

 

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A poem has meaning so long as we can trace its impulses, register its orchestrations, adumbrate its visions. Ambiguity is natural and substantive—in poems, in people, in our very lives. It is not an aesthetic remainder to which we become resigned or inured. Poems do not involve ambiguity; they embody it as fundamental to the heights and depths and infinite middle grounds of human experience. If a poem clarifies, it does so in the strict definition of that word—it brings something into sharper focus. Ambiguity is not the fog on the lens but the fog in the field, and for this, the poem offers a hospitable view. It does not offer a different field.

 

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We are not, finally, the subjects of memory, but the objects: we are acted upon. We do not look back on it, it looks to us, is the light of its looking, is what light sees from its source. That we feel memory as mosaic has little to do with our construction of it and much more to do with its unremitting construction of us. Each memory, its window. Countless windows arranged panoptically. The great structure grows at its edges, and yet there is no seam, no rift, no visible rupture. Instead you sip coffee, noting the afternoon’s glassiness, its startling glare. You gaze up from the center, always the center, and if there are others, other faces behind the grayish panes of glass, eyes staring down and through the very place you sit with your chipped mug, with the novel you’ve been reading for months now, ten pages at a time and usually at night, so that each time you pick it up you have to start three pages back just to understand how you got to where you are, and now the eyes seem to be reflected on the surface of the page you’re rereading, though you can’t quite make them out, never quite, and yet you think you were there once, in the happening of the memory, you saw who they’d been to bring them there where they were, the paisley dress this one wore, the lilac wallpaper, the too-sharp pencil behind that one’s ear. You take a sip of coffee. You take another sip. You look but they never step forward to acknowledge your looking. Perhaps your seeking after them is its own acknowledgment, and because each cell of the panopticon extends infinitely inward, is ever-shifting, is yours, it seems the rarest of occasions when you spot one whose gaze falls squarely on you.

 

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How the poem is like a great pane of aquarium glass—its dense layering contains the tremendous pressures of space and matter within, and yet, never at the expense of clarity. Without clarity, both spaces—within and without—are unviewable.

 

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And the great space of cavern

suffers its narrow entry.

 

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There’s a variety of contemporary skepticism that cuts everything it touches. When faced with uncertainty or possibility, these skeptics say I doubt it. When faced with a condemning proof, they say No surprise there. When faced with a liberating proof, they say What does it matter?

 

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The fear of past selves—we say How are you? at the bus stop and How was your day? in bed at night. There, with our heads pillowed and buried, we do not say How were you today?

 

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The house suffused with inviting light, as all light invites, and day tumbles on toward its greater memory, wildly dispersed. One dries his hands at a dingy sink, another falls in love with reflections.

 

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It is one thing to engender disciples (Ginsberg, Plath); to sustain a vision is something else (Dickinson, Crane). An artist who’s “transformed” his respective landscape is always lesser than he could have been. This kind of transformation is traced externally, as effect-cause-effect. This artist creates an alternative world in response to the constraints and biases of the given world. A hurricane sweeps the coast and refashions it from the very same materials—this artist lives for that sublime juncture of defacement and refacement. But the artist in extremis inscribes an aesthetic landscape within her view. It is self-contained; it is implicit; it is a sanctum. This artist has no need to counterpose outside experience or influence, since each of her creations is alchemized and engraved with her signature. In her given time, this art will appear unnameable, unplaceable, a thing out of time and cultural circumstance. In short, a thing that does not speak to us. And yet, we say that visionaries define their eras—eras that did not recognize them. The work of the transformative artist is a calculated responding to; it is explicit. The work of the visionary—the artist-in-sanctum—is a naive responding from; it is implicit. Like a solitary walker, at night, holding a lantern, stepping through meadows, forests, river-wadings, over bridges and promontories, to cities, oceans of cities, oceans. She records all, is observed by none—how otherwise? She is the sole inhabitant of that land.

 

 

 

 

 

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