Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Memory notes: death & visitations

Over a week ago I received an email from a poet here in Honolulu--not a submission to Tinfish, he was clear on that--but a set of poems that chronicled the St. Louis Cardinals' 2011 season and World Series win.  He and I sometimes run into each other on campus, each of us sporting a Cardinals cap.  I might be wearing the cap with the bird on it, he a red home cap.  Or he an away blue cap and I the STL logo cap in red.

No sooner had I opened his attachment (that word is ever fraught) than I realized that the first poem marked a visitation.  The poem's title is "The World Series Fell from Heaven," but there was more of heaven to the poem than my poet friend knew.  It begins:

When I watched the Cards lose in DC
in June it was the sort of pure
pain all sports fans learn to endure.
His "sort of pure pain" was over a baseball game gone wrong.  "A come-from-ahead-then-fall-behind defeat" describes a game I remember, too. It was this game.  I paste in the line-score.

7:05 PM ET, June 14, 2011
Nationals Park, Washington, D.C.

123456789 R H E
STL 200130000 6 9 2
WSH 00010160- 8 13
W: H. Rodriguez (2-1)
L: M. Batista (3-2)
S: D. Storen (16)

The game started one hour after my mother died; by the time I reached my friends' house in suburban DC and asked that the game be turned on, the Cardinals were well ahead.  Perhaps it was 6-1 or 6-2.  We were making what small talk we could.  And then the Nationals made their come-back, fueled as much by the Cardinals' sorry relief corps as by their own hitting prowess.  My poet friend was sitting next to an obnoxious Nationals' fan--one of those who is not really a baseball fan, but cheers loudly for the home team--and I was performing an odd wake for my mother.  

That evening, I returned to my hotel room and wrote this blog entry.  There is no mention in it of the St. Louis Cardinals.  Instead, I wrote in part about a coincidence that brought me back the voice of my father by way of his old friend, Jerry Lawlor.  Here is the paragraph on that coincidence:

Ellen took me home with her and Steve. They & Max asked about my father. I offered history: Michigan farm, auto plant, air force (when it integrated, he knew Tuskegee airmen), IBM, Western Union. Ellen said, Jerry Lawler. Jerry Lawler! My father's Irish friend, office roommate of Col. Dudley Stevenson, Tuskegee airman. Steve called Jerry; we explained the coincidence. He darted off to find a letter. Please, do you mind? I'm looking. Dear Jerry, the letter read. My father's voice, Irished. Jerry, you never put yourself above others, gave credit to them & did not take it. The experience of an Irish immigrant. Martha & Susan join me in wishing you a long & enjoyable retirement.  

 And here is a photograph of that letter, its wording true:

I've been reading W.G. Sebald's books now that the semester has ended.  In Austerlitz, he writes: "if Newton really thought that time was a river like the Thames, then where is its source and into what sea does it finally flow?  Every river, as we know, must have banks on both sides, so where, seen in those terms, where are the banks of time?  What would be this river's qualities, qualities perhaps corresponding to those of water, which is fluid, rather heavy, and translucent?  In what way do objects immersed in time differ from those left untouched by it?"  Sebald's work is (dis)organized by coincidences, synchronicities.  An ordinary life is never ordinary, hides its memories like a glacier.  One such glacier returns a lost man to the author, but not to the man who had loved him, who had killed himself.  The dead are never dead, always on the cusp of returning.  The living are never out of their sight.  Or all of us exist in a time that is sometimes outside itself, wafting like the dust Sebald found comfort in, not clean like the line of a railroad track.
I have always had at the back of my mind this notion that of course these people aren't really gone, they just hover somewhere at the perimeter of our lives and keep coming in on brief visits. 
It's the nature--super-nature--of these visits that fascinates me in this year since my mother's death.  If I have often lived in within her memories (of The War, of an adventurous life that somehow ended at my birth, becoming ordinary), the post-memories I have of her come of other peoples' lives and memories.  Her death has brought me new friends, Terry Hong of McLean, Virginia, where my mother lived for many years, and Jee Young (Vera) Lee, of Honolulu and Meadville, Pennsylvania, my mother's home town.  Toward the end of her conscious life, my mother confused her memories with mine.  I don't do that, but memories are inevitably a mixed genre, her recollections mine in the context in which I heard them. A car seat. A living room. The kitchen where she chopped vegetables.  Nothing grand.  Just the ordinary events of otherwise unmemorable days, now pushing through time's surface like a fin, or a leaf. 

There is something terribly alluring to me about the past.  I'm hardly interested in the future . . . at least about the past you can have certain illusions.

I want to argue with Sebald over that one.  Future and past are both provinces of the imagination, both susceptible to illusion.  But the passage from his work that strikes me most strongly--is most compelling in its oddity--is this one, again from Austerlitz:

What made me uneasy at the sight of it [the capital of a cast-iron column in Pilsen], however, was not the question whether the complex form of the capital now covered with a puce-tinged encrustation, had really impressed itself on my mind when I passed through Pilsen with the children's transport in the summer of 1939, but the idea, ridiculous in itself, that this cast-iron column, which with its scaly surface seemed almost to approach the nature of a living being, might remember me and was, if I may so put it, said Austerlitz, a witness to what I could no longer recollect for myself.

It's the idea that memories do not live inside of us, but that we live inside the world's memories of our passage, that is so awkwardly telling here.  To have forgotten is odd enough, but to ask that the world remember for us is as beautiful as it is presumptuous. A death leads to a televised game leads to a poem leads to a box score leads back to a father's 1984 letter to a colleague.  The symbolism of loss arrives in numbers on my screen. 


The poet is Joseph Stanton, who has written widely about the St. Louis Cardinals.

No comments: