What tense

A rain like this slicks new leaves with a new, rapt memory. Do we call it memory when it is dripping onto our umbrellas? No, not until we recall participating in it. Really, we are indistinguishable from rain in memories.

In my poetic practice this month, I’ve been reflecting on memory and forgetting, and the associated emotional work of that duality: appreciating and forgiving. I was reminded, of course, that I have reflected on this before and am only circling back on it from a new perspective. The poems turn back. Rain returns.

Notably, I encountered this thread of memory/forgetting while translating from Tirukkural (sometimes called the Kural for short), a classical collection of Tamil wisdom poetry.

"I thought about you," I said. "Then sometimes you forgot," she reminded,
keeping out of my arms, pretending to be peeved.

She blessed me when I sneezed, then altered, asking
"Who thought about you to make you sneeze?"

My next sneeze I quelled, but she cried, "someone is thinking of you,
I know, you’re hiding it from me."

from "Flirting & the Excellence of Rain, essay and translations" in Numéro Cinq Magazine

I was thinking of these because Tom Pruiksma, my friend and fellow poet-translator from Tamil, is offering a seven-week online course, Taller than a Mountain, on the Kural, starting May 18, with a bonus class on May 4 for those who register before that. His work has been supported by Fulbright and NEA awards, and I’m looking forward to this opportunity to learn about this ancient and esteemed work.

Sending off April and all its national poetry month rain with a lot of gratitude. One last poetry event before it ended—on Thursday, I attended the 2023 Kenneth A. Lohf Poetry Reading at the Morgan Library. Jenny Xie read from her collection, The Rupture Tense, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. It was magnificent, plush and hushed while Xie shared poems about her 2019 visit to her birthplace in China after a long absence, about her reflections on “what leaks across the breached borders between past and future.”

The sequence of poems at the beginning of the book are ekphrastic responses to the work of Li Zhensheng, a photographer who visually documented the Chinese Cultural Revolution, preserving memory by hiding the negatives under his floorboards. Xie talked about discovering this trove of photographs and her reactions to this sudden window onto the world of her family members just one generation before her. (This interview with the Katonah Poetry Series includes some of that insight.)

In June 2020, the photographer Li Zhensheng died on a 
hospital bed in Queens, New York, of a cerebral hemorrhage,
at the age of 79.

Torn color. That red of clots, flags, armbands. Of ropes of
firecrackers that irradiate the past. Of eardrums, blasted
doors to the mind. Of all that drains from opaque masses.

With the passage out of life, memory-images spill over an 
unarticulated margin, dragged across from the warm retinal
currents of those who remain. And carried off is the purest of
memory, anterior to image, which once swarmed like river
water between the red banks of him.

--from "Memory Soldier" in The Rupture Tense, by Jenny Xie

What intrigues me in this poem’s opening stanzas is the overlap of medical language with imagery from the photography. Words like “clots,” “masses,” “irradiate,” “drains,” “retinal,” “anterior,” and even “red.” The body participates fully in memory.

In case we were thinking that it’s only the mind that reigns and rains.

I’m glad it’s stopped raining, and that there’s still poetry after April showers move on. More than that, I’m glad that so many people I meet in the art world are deeply focused on something other than just art itself. Memory and forgetting :: appreciating and forgiving, in a Möbius loop of reflection.

Time to dry out the feathers, poets.

4 thoughts on “What tense

  1. Anu these watercolors are exquisite! I have always loved your writing and now I’ve been loving watching your paintings evolve – th

  2. Anu,
    and your painting,
    and your wordifications
    are wondrous.

    I write and send this
    with humble surmise.

    Steven Swank 3 Mayo 2023

    I see you.
    I hear you.

    I see you and imagine you
    rising in predawn light
    ritually putting on the white lab coats
    that are the ilk of science,
    precisely securing each button
    with the long sound of mantra vowels

    Arriving each day ready to sort out
    the vestige droppings
    of present and former poets
    alike or different as they are,
    discerning meaning in hurry,
    in each languish, portent

    Noting and scribing linguistic values
    as each might worthy consideration,
    as each might engender trust,
    engender purpose, or longing;
    droppings consistent with both
    herbivore and omnivorial diet.

    I admire.
    I aspire.

    I am just a farm boy
    looking for rudimental verbs
    in the muddy ruts of spring;
    excited if I find nouns
    that have survived the winter
    buried in afterthoughts

    should they shoulder
    through the earth,
    straightening their spines,
    shoving aside dim and shadow,
    and so reveal with tiny blossoms
    a bit of premonition, a bit of promise.

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