Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Generous Grammar: Joe Brainard's _I Remember_ and the Shared Sentence

Yesterday, my introductory class discussed Joe Brainard's I Remember, that hypnotic, impolite, relentless book, at once memoir and long poem, assertion and invitation to participate. A couple of the students remarked on how long it takes to read the book because it awakens the reader's own memory centers. No theory of reader response should exist without a public performance of this text; call and response would be best. Gospel choir even better.

"I remember" is starkly present tense. Memory is what takes the place of the present because we can't live in it while we're remembering things. It's the moment when all the tenses jostle for position, like small children at the fun fair, angling for the next ride. Brainard's book is no ode, but it performs the activity of calling into being something that is not there. Oh parental rubbers! Oh movie theater molestation! Oh Marilyn Monroe! Oh house keys!

The students do not remember what Brainard remembers--the ice box turned refrigerator, the death of JFK, 1950s fashion moments--but they recognize themselves in the structure of his memories, which are sentences. We may not share the content, but we share the grammar of the sentence, "I remember peach fuzz." (You won't find that in the book, that I remember.)

Which brings me back to what matters about the loss of memory. If my mother remembers the phrase, "I'm glad you called and everything is all right," I presume that she remembers what that phrase means. Am I right? When she forgets how to say it but says "I understand," what does she understand? Can understanding be anything but past tense, even if that tense has a short duration? Is memory important because it endures, or seems to, even as it changes like oral transmissions of history? Yet lacking a memory makes one seem especially static. Are stasis and endurance the same? Maybe, maybe not. There was something creative about the act of forgetting, when one person's life story came to inhabit another's; in later Alzheimer's there is no creation, only erasure, or what has been erased. But something endures, the body of the person who held onto memories and can be remembered by us. Person as memory box. Memory body.

Tenses: when I see my two small classes, I think I will remember enjoying them; I know they will have been among my last small classes. We are losing seven colleagues to retirement this year--the first of many such years, our demographics being what they are--with no funding to replace any of them. Write ten "I will have remembered" phrases. "I would want to have remembered," "I will have tried to forget." These will have been the days. And yesterday an email came to us about massive cuts in the UH Library.

My other (400-level) class, which is currently in Shakespeare sonnet boot camp, performed sonnets in groups with rhythmic accompaniment (an ipu, some sticks). We talked the first week about the significance of the little words in the sonnets, the words that indicate a turn in argument and whose importance is signified by a change in rhythm or tone. "When . . . then . . . then . . . but if" forms the skeleton for sonnet #30, a sonnet about memory, judgment, economics, recompense. The art of the little word did not begin with Gertrude Stein; Shakespeare was there with his quiver of one syllable articles both definite and in- . One of the groups pointed every time they got to a reference to "him" (in another sonnet). That's what the words do. They point, appoint, posture, gesticulate, perform for and in us.


I met a retired woman at Kaiser the other day whose parents had lived most of their adult lives in the South Pacific, sending their daughter back to Hawai`i to be educated. She was telling me a story about going to an education conference over a decade ago and meeting a woman who separated everyone into groups--Asian American, African American, Mexican American. My interlocutor's question to this woman had been, "do you consider yourself German American? Your name is Schultz." "But my name is Schultz," I said to her.

Her mother lived so long on atolls that she told her daughter to bury her where she could not see the ocean. Not wanting to say, "but you'll see nothing in any case," the good daughter buried her mother where she could see the Ko`olau.

Our names came up on the board. "There we are," she said.



Kyle said...

Interesting post, Susan. It's not possible--for me at least--to think about "memory" without thinking of Nabokov or Proust. (That's really unrelated, just something I thought of.) The question you pose about your mother understanding certain phrases is really powerful. What *does* it mean? An interesting question. I once talked to an older gentleman who was dying and he kept insisting that helicopters were surrounding the city and I needed to be careful. I didn't know what to say.

One last thing: Pia Tafdrup's got a book coming out this January (in English) about her father's bout with Alzheimer's. I'm reading it now. It's good. I've never read *I remember*. Maybe I should.

susan said...

Kyle--What is Tafdrup's book called and who will publish it? I'll look for it next year. Are you the translator?