Saturday, August 1, 2009

August Challenge

Memory loss is not a new subject for poetry. Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) wrote that “You cannot make remembrance grow / when it has lost its root.” She went on to indicate that when you don’t want to remember something it keeps popping up in your mind. You can read her poem at

Katie Kingston deals with memory loss in a unique way in the first stanza of her poem, “When I Clap.”

When I Clap (Excerpt)

My right hand reaches for the feather of memory
that fell from my mother’s hat as she bent to get out
of the car, down-tugged away on wind, not unlike
the pigeon, roosting now above the church door, satisfied
with alcove. Everything I touch is the texture of oven bread,
round like my mother’s voice as I teach her conversation again.
The scent of empaňadas lingers in the blue opal earthstone
of her earring when she leans to say Goodnight, God bless,
until morning, but now, I say the words first because she
has forgotten even the sound fire trucks make outside our window.
What’s that? she asks, her palms pressed to her ears.

-- Katie Kingston

From In My Dreams Neruda (Main Street Rag’s Editor’s Choice Chapbook Series; Charlotte NC: Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2005), p. 12. © 2005 Katie Kingston. Used with permission of the author.

Katie Kingston uses interesting details and metaphors to turn the mother’s memory loss into poetry. There is special—and unexpected---poignancy, when the narrator says her mother “leans to say Good Night, God bless,” and only afterwards tells us that she (the narrator) had to say it first, so her mother could repeat it. Her mother is like a child, having to be taught again and again. Like the pigeon, the mother has to be satisfied with little. There are hints her mother once liked to cook and bake bread, and perhaps that she was an elegant woman (note that blue opal earring).

The late Judith Strasser also had a unique take on forgetfulness.

Memory Lapse
For an older friend

I am prepared, when you don’t show up. For three days
and three nights, I have been watching
the War in the Gulf. I baked a cake while we bombed
Baghdad. I set the table; they shelled Tel Aviv.
You are like one of the casualties. All fall,
during the build-up, panic rattled the telephone lines.
You boiled pots dry, missed appointments, lost
your wallet, your checkbook, your keys. You made
company meals for guests you did not invite.
We worried the facts to shreds: drug interactions,
Jack Daniel’s blackouts, Alzheimer’s disease.

The commercials come back. I run to the kitchen
to turn off the coffee pot. The calendar on the wall
targets your visit in red: 1:00 P.M. Saturday, next week.
I see the error is mine. I didn’t expect the shock
of war. I didn’t think of battle fatigue.
I never considered grief.

-- Judith Strasser

From A Chorus for Peace: A Global Anthology of Poetry by Women
ed. by Marilyn Arnold, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill and Kristen Tracy (Iowa City IA: University of Iowa Press, 2002), p. 39.
© 2009 by The Estate of Judith Strasser. Limited Warranty mss. will be posted at

Judith Strasser relates incidents at the start of the first Gulf War. The narrator’s life goes on more or less as usual, except that she is constantly watching the war on television. It is obvious that the news of the war interests her, but we can almost believe she is unmoved by it. She bakes a cake during the bombing of Baghdad, sets the table while Tel Aviv is shelled. Meanwhile, her older friend, who exhibits the ravages of memory loss, is like a war casualty. She misses appointments, loses things, forgets to invite the guests for whom she cooks---her life has become chaotic. The narrator and her friend have worried over possible reasons for her memory loss, all plausible. We are no more surprised than the narrator that this older friend has not come as scheduled. But wait---the narrator suddenly sees the calendar, and it tells her something unexpected. Their appointment wasn’t this week, but next. She has been so upset and grief-stricken over the start of the war, that she got confused. Now we don’t know for sure if the panic on the telephone lines had more to do with lost property and pots burned dry or bombing. Looking back, we see that Strasser says “we bombed Baghdad,” which suggests that, as a citizen of the U.S., she has to take some responsibility for what the government does; likely is one source of “battle fatigue” and grief for her.

August Challenge

The August Challenge is to write a poem concerning memory loss (or take a clue from the end of Emily Dickinson’s poem and write about unsuccessfully trying to forget something). Submit your poem by clicking on “comment” (below this posting). Only poems sent in that way by August 15, 2009, will be considered. At least one poem will be chosen for posting on this blog. Posting on a Website or blog constitutes publication.

Keep writing,
Wilda Morris

(c) 2009 Wilda W. Morris