Ars Memoria

September 8, 2013 § Leave a comment


I thought of something that made me want to write a memory piece about visiting my grandmother in the Christmas of 1967. So I set the scene: my father and brother newly dead, my mother taking us to Houston—where she came from; we lived in new Jersey—which was a gift since I loved my elegant grandmother, her beautiful house, and her two golden retrievers. That was the week I became friends with my cousin Faxy, the first person in my life that I could talk to endlessly about nothing in particular. I was a pathologically shy and lonely child, and this friendship was one of the most important events of my first 20 years.

So I set the scene, but when I was ready to probe into that compelling memory, the piece of event or emotion that was vivid enough to hang a few paragraphs on, I had completely forgotten it.

I remembered the stories I usually remember: getting drunk on champagne with Fax and rolling around on the twin beds with their peach satin quilts, then, later, pushing a boy we didn’t like into the pool (clothed), though my grandmother didn’t have a pool, so that was somewhere else. The servants chiding us for our tipsiness with swallowed smiles, warning us to stay out of our grandmother’s sight. The adults, glimpsed from a distance, down the hall, holding cocktail glasses and cigarettes, so well dressed: suits, dresses, patent leather shoes, makeup and hairdos. No one in jogging clothes or shorts, sneakers or jeans, not even the children.

I felt so hopeful: I can forget all the dulling futility & constipated eroticism of this period of my life, write memoir from a softer and wider perspective than I did in 1999. Remember those I love with some complication, but mostly forgiveness and humor, no need to mention the frozen zombie heart I have pinned to my closet floor.

I see the two little girls rolling on twin beds, their faces flushed, their fine dresses rucked up above their knees. My first experience of champagne sparked that helpless laughter that reminds me of a toilet overflowing, great gulps brimming over and sloshing out.

But there was something else. Something resembling an idea. It’s gone, whatever it was. I feel as if pieces of me are disappearing at an alarming rate. That solid, ferocious ego of youth or even of forty—that’s as much history as the American cars of the mid 20th century that were big, hungry and powered like tanks. Some of you remember Old Green: ex-police, tough as nails. Whatever in me was like that is not anymore.

It’s been storming here lately. Last night it was so violent, I wanted to run outside and play in the lightning. The cooler weather is very welcome. There’s a young poet here who looks a little bit like my stepdaughter did in college, and that makes me nostalgic too. I’m going to keep doing this—residencies in beautiful places—but I miss being able to share a landscape with someone I love. My cats, for instance, would occupy this place with far more artistry and imaginative leaps than I ever could. I can see them nosing through the grass, chasing snakes and mice and rabbits, climbing fences and trees. If only the silly things liked to travel.

Go Greyhound

A few hours after Des Moines
the toilet overflowed.
This wasn’t the adventure it sounds.

I sat with a man whose tattoos
weighed more than I did.
He played Hendrix on mouth guitar.
His Electric Ladyland lips
weren’t fast enough
and if pitch and melody
are the rudiments of music,
this was just
memory, a body nostalgic
for the touch of adored sound.

Hope’s a smaller thing on a bus.

You hope a forgotten smoke consorts
with lint in the pocket of last
resort to be upwind
of the human condition, that the baby
and when this never happens,
that she cries
with the lullaby meter of the sea.

We were swallowed by rhythm.
The ultra blond
who removed her wig and applied
fresh loops of duct tape
to her skull,
her companion who held a mirror
and popped his dentures
in and out of place,
the boy who cut stuffing
from the seat where his mother
should have been—
there was a little more sleep
in our thoughts,
it was easier to yield.

To what, exactly—
the suspicion that what we watch
watches back,
cornfields that stare at our hands,
that hold us in their windows
through the night?

Or faith, strange to feel
in that zoo of manners.

I had drool on my shirt and breath
of the undead, a guy
dropped empty Buds on the floor
like gravity was born
to provide this service,
we were white and black trash
who’d come
in an outhouse on wheels and still

some had grown—
in touching the spirited shirts
on clotheslines,
after watching a sky of starlings
flow like cursive
over wheat—back into creatures
capable of a wish.

As we entered Arizona
I thought I smelled the ocean,
liked the lie of this
and closed my eyes
as shadows
puppeted against my lids.

We brought our failures with us,
their taste, their smell.
But the kid
who threw up in the back
pushed to the window anyway,
opened it
and let the wind clean his face,
screamed something
I couldn’t make out
but agreed with
in shape, a sound I recognized
as everything I’d come so far
to give away.

Bob Hicok


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