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Friday, November 18, 2011

Number 304: Billy Collins "Forgetfulness"


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

-- Billy Collins

Hap Notes: Again, this deceptively casual, conversational Collins poem holds a wealth of depth. On the surface, the poet is talking about the loss of memory, particularly as one ages. One can block things in the memory that are painful or traumatic but this poem deals with regular memory loss, which is usually associated with aging.

The description of memories retiring to a warm climate is amusing. It reminds one of older parents who retire in Florida or Arizona. Even more telling is the thought that one may often wish to be somewhere that has no phones, no stress. It's a picture of frustration for those trying to contact the phoneless residents, though. Note the use of the words "harbor" and "fishing village." The poet says he was the harbor for the memories, now it's somewhere remote.

The nine muses and the quadratic equation are somewhat obscure to most folks who don't spend time reading Greek poetry and literature or working on univariate polynomial equations (equations that have one variable with an infinite length as opposed to a linear equation which forms a straight line. That's enough math for me, now, otherwise I'll have to go lie down for a while until my brain stops smoking.) Suffice it to say that the quadratic equation is not a straight line- a lot of different variations exist. It is complex.

The muses inspire music, literature, history, dance, science and art. What would it mean to "kiss the names goodbye"?

It's amazing to count the things you had to know at one time, a state flower or the capitals of countries or information about your relatives and find that you no longer remember them. Some call much of this "useless information," a term I find particularly irritating. Most people don't use a hammer every day, some may have used one only a few times, some not at all – this does not make knowing what a hammer is to be useless information does it?

The spleen is an interesting organ to use for several reasons. First off, it stores blood for emergencies in the body. Baudelaire used the term "splenetique" to mean melancholy. However in English it usually refers to anger, as in "to vent one's spleen." In the four humours ( the Greek and Roman classification of the fluids of the body corresponding to illness and temper) the spleen is "Black Bile" or melancholy and crabby. [The other ones? Yellow Bile (choleric/bad tempered), Blood (sanguine/hopeful, happy and brave, Phlegm (unperturbed and unemotional. This is not to be confused with the four temperaments which are somewhat similar.]

Ah, now we get to the dark mythological river that starts with "L" which you should know from this blog is the river Lethe. Lethe is the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology (breaking off briefly to point out there's a lot of Greco-Roman stuff in this poem, yes?) which flowed through the underworld. Virgil said that the dead may not be reincarnated until they have had a drink from the river Lethe which would erase all their memories. [The underworld has five rivers: Lethe (forgetfulness), Styx (hate), Kokytos (lamentation), Akheron (sorrow) and Phlegethon (fire). Always good to store this for future memory- until the forgetfulness sets in...]

In fact, Lethe is the name of the Greek spirit of oblivion and forgetfulness.

See how this Collins poem has a good deal of meaning on many surfaces?

Just a bit more fuel for thought– remember how people always say, "It's like riding a bicycle –you never forget"? And what would happen to one who forgot how to swim? How many times have you gone to look some fact up because you forgot it? Why is it so important that you find it again? What is the fear/irritation in this?

What does it mean when the moon reminds you of a love poem-–so familiar that you memorized it –but one that you cannot recall now? (There's a melancholy to this, too, yes?)

If all of this information has not made it clear– this poem is about the approach of death which follows all the loss of memories. Collins does not hit us over the head with it, but the melancholy one feels for one's own demise is solidly in there amidst the good-natured joking.

Here's where we have talked about Collins before:

The masthead today is Pollock's "Autumn Rythym" because I just didn't want to forget to use it.

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