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Chapbook Review: A Walk through the Memory Palace by Pamela Johnson Parker

December 10, 2009

cover imageAs you walk through a memory palace, each room holds a category of recollections assigned to the various objects lodged within. Pick up a vase, and you remember the meaning of stamen. Pick up a jar, and you remember the smell of a rose. The marbles in the jar hold each time you’ve smelled one. A memory palace is not a physical place but, rather, an elaborate mnemonic device in which imagined concrete objects help you to organize and recall that which you do not wish to forget.

Pamela Johnson Parker‘s A Walk through the Memory Palace explores the relationship between such imagined objects and memories, expanding the logic of the memory palace and, at times, reversing it. While the objects in question seem real enough to the imaginary narrator of the piece (who even if based on the poet’s self is an imagined self), they are by virtue of existing only poems not actual objects. This is illustrated by the mutation of Marianne Moore‘s wish, expressed in “Poetry”, for poets who can create “imaginary gardens with real toads in them” into “Unreal Gardens Without Toads in Them” (the title of the seventh of ten poems).

Other poems turn the object that evokes memory into a chain of objects that evoke other objects until at last a brief narrative and a feeling are found. “78 RPM” begins with dusk, which recalls a porch and various objects on it, which in turn evoke a story about a girl being left to sit alone for a few minutes with a boy, and then after the story is told, after the girl’s aunt has returned with ice tea, comes the feeling expressed through the physical: “You have to keep your / Knees pressed tight together.” There are hints of blooming sexuality here. The same need to hide this new desire which makes the girl think she needs to keep her knees together also underlies the later need to go through so many layers of objects in order to reach the feeling. The inventory of the memory palace may bury what it is supposed to help you recall. The first part of “Tattoos”, “Ink”, seems to fall into this trap:

Cardamom, ginger,
          pomegranate bark. Bamboo
                    shoots, asparagus,

damp smouldering leaves —
          mugwort mordant in votives.
                    Wicker baskets, rows

and rows of trays, jars
          decanting tarragon, dried
                    dandelions, black

mushrooms, bear bladders.
          Aisles of densities, textures:
                    dry dun-colored globes,

the testes of arctic
          seals; cicada skins, fingers
                    of ginseng. Silver

Assam teas, great sacks
          of rice, geese screeching from crates.

These vivid lines, describing items that seem more appropriate to an alchemist’s or witch’s shop than to a tattoo parlor, overshadow wholly the memories of the clerk and what he says and does which conclude “Ink”. In “Canvas”, however, there can be no forgetting the story of what happens between him and the speaker; the story of the memory becomes the focus. With the two parts of the poem being arranged on facing pages and having similar (though not identical structures), it is tempting to try to read a one-to-one correspondence between the bric-a-brac in “Ink” and the parts of the “Canvas” memory. Any such reading, however, is likely to say more about the reader than about the poems themselves.

While both “78 RPM” and “Tattoos” follow the pattern of object-more abstract memory, “First Anniversary: Reading Russian Literature” briefly reverses it: “No money, so we sip from glass cups niched / In silver holders”. A recollection of the state in which she and her partner found themselves (poor) leads to the recollection of objects, which is followed by more details of what they did on the date of their first anniversary.

A Walk Through the Memory Palace won the 2009 qarrtsiluni chapbook contest. Last June, after seeing a post here about sexism in English-language poetry, the online journal arm of qarrtsiluni checked their own records and found that 57% of the authors and artists they had published were female and that 60% of their issue-editors were women. In light of recent issues with Publishers Weekly, it is especially important to support small presses with this sort of track record.

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