I Remember, I Remember

On the handsome roofers, attentive cows, and sudden tears of youth.

by Mary Ruefle

I remember being so young I thought all artists were famous.

I remember being so young I thought all artists were good, kind, loving, exceptionally interesting, and exemplary human beings.

I remember—I must have been eight or nine—wandering out to the ungrassed backyard of our newly constructed suburban house and seeing that the earth was dry and cracked in irregular squares and other shapes, and I felt I was looking at a map and I was completely overcome by this description, my first experience of making a metaphor, and I felt weird and shaky and went inside and wrote it down: the cracked earth is a map. Although it only takes a little time to tell it, and it is hardly interesting, it filled a big moment at the time, it was an enormous ever-expanding room of a moment, a chunk of time that has expanded ever since and that my whole life keeps fitting into.

I remember writing a letter to President John F. Kennedy and a few weeks after mailing it finding it in the bottom of my mother’s drawer.

I remember sending my poems to Little, Brown and Company and suggesting they title the collection “The Little Golden Book of Verse,” and I remember their rejection was very kind and I was stunned when they made a guess at my age and were correct, I was in the fourth grade, and I felt the people at Little, Brown and Company were so smart they could read minds.

I remember I chose Little, Brown and Company for a very special reason: they were the publishers of my favorite author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the Little House on the Prairie books (this was long before the television series). And although Little, Brown and Company sent me a very kind letter indeed, and guessed my age, they also did something I could never forgive them for, something that upset me for days and weeks and months. They sent me a picture of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a ninety-year-old woman; they told me she was dead, her mother and father and sisters were all dead too, and her husband, and that one of my favorite characters had died in a threshing machine accident—a threshing machine accident—it was so specific I was able to picture it vividly in my imagination, the mangled body in its overalls, the hat fallen off, some blood on the ground, the machine stopped in the noonday sun, one of its wheels bent out of shape, or some spoke or cog, and a leg or arm was in there, and the whole scene took place in the center of miles and miles and miles—as far as you could see—of beautiful golden grain, all the same length, like a crew cut.

I remember I was not exactly sure what a threshing machine was.

I remember they said that although Pa was dead, his fiddle was in a museum somewhere, and once a year somebody took it out of its case and played it. I remember feeling sorry for the violin, and thinking how lonely it must be to live like that, in a museum.

I remember when I was in the fifth grade my grandfather died and it was my first funeral and when everyone was filing out of the funeral parlor I remember asking if Grandpap was going to stay in there all alone at night and they said yes and I thought that would be awfully scary, lying in a coffin in an empty building, just like the fiddle in its case.

I remember when I was forty-five and my mother died it poured the day we buried her and late at night I thought of how cold her body must be, with the freezing rain pouring down on it, and how much she would hate being out in the cold and rain if she were alive. She would want to be under the blankets of her own bed on such a night, with a cup of coffee on the nightstand, and the coffee would be on top of the first art object I ever made, at the age of five, a ceramic coaster: a white tile with my face drawn on it in brown lines. For forty years her coffee cup must have burned my face, and since my mother died by fire, I did not want to think of it anymore.

“I remember, I remember,/The house where I was born” are the first two lines of a famous poem called “I Remember, I Remember” by a not-so-famous poet named Thomas Hood, and it was in the first poetry book I ever owned, The Golden Treasury of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer.

I remember (later) thinking it was a curious thing, that there were so many famous poems by not-so-famous poets.

I remember (later) being shocked when I discovered Hood was a contemporary of Keats, only four years younger; I always thought of him as a later Victorian, for the diction of the two poets is remarkably different. No matter how you look at this, the implications are truly startling: either the lesser Hood was ahead of his time, or the greater Keats (Miltonian) was behind his time. It means poetry is more than the sum of its diction.

I remember I recognized the allusion when I read Philip Larkin’s version of “I Remember, I Remember.” Larkin’s poem is also called “I Remember, I Remember,” and in it his train happens to stop in Coventry and he happens to remember he was born there. The last line of the poem is “Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.”

I remember my Thanksgiving poem being pinned to the school bulletin board, where everyone could see it, and leaves cut out of orange construction paper were stapled all around it. It began, “We thank God for the living land.”

I remember in high school there was a girl named Lizette. She had black hair and a very pale face and because her mother was French she was an outsider and to make matters worse she was not the best student but was awfully good at art and took all the art classes and we worked on the literary magazine together and I liked her very much but I was afraid to be her friend because after all she was strange and I think I was jealous of her strangeness at the same time as I was afraid of it, and when we were together we read our poems out loud to each other, and in this way, through poetry, it was always safe to communicate.

I remember (much later) wondering what ever happened to Lizette.

I remember another friend in high school whose mother was an artist and their house was full of statues—the Buddha and nymphs—and the furniture looked like it was hundreds of years old and there were paintings on the wall and her mother had a separate apartment called a studio and in it were figures of clay on pedestals and in one corner an old hand-cranked Gramophone and I liked being in there but it was kinda scary too, it seemed forbidden in some way I couldn’t figure out; art was scary, strange, forbidden, and the really confusing part was I wanted it and needed it.

I remember one afternoon my friend and I were in the studio and all the clay figures on pedestals were draped with white sheets and my friend told me her mother did that when she didn’t want to look at them anymore and I was totally confused.

I remember standing in a field in Switzerland at dusk, surrounded by cows with bells around their necks, and reading John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” out loud from an open book I was holding in my hands, and I started to weep—weep is a better word for it than cry—and I remember the tears slowly streaming down my face, it was that beautiful to me, and I loved poetry that much. I was eighteen.

I remember (later) thinking that it was actually hilarious that I used to read poetry to cows, that they were an integral part of my most serious moment.

I remember in junior high my leg was in a cast and it was summer and I was lying on a sofa in the basement where it was cool; there was a tv down there, and an ironing board, and a room for my sister to stay in when she came home from college, and my sister was ironing—she was always ironing, sewing, or cooking, she was majoring in Home Economics—and to pass the time she gave me one of her college textbooks, a book of poems by the British Romantics, and the only other thing I can remember is that my life changed that summer. My life changed for good.

I remember when I graduated from college, we were asked to submit exactly how we wanted our names to appear on our diplomas, and I spelled my middle name (which is Lorraine) Low Rain, because the day before I had been reading W.S. Merwin’s new book and in it was some kind of brief Japanese thing along the lines of “Low Rain, Roof Fell.”

I remember when my parents saw my diploma, they were horrified and kept asking me how I could have done such a thing, after they paid for my education and all.

I remember finding the diploma among my mother’s things after she died, and throwing it away.

I remember I never did like to save things much.

I remember saving everything.

I remember the afternoon I sat in a literature class, my hardback edition of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens open before me, a book I had already owned for years, the pages worn and softened by endless turning and fingering, page after page filled with marginalia, notes, the definitions of words, question marks, exclamation marks, and underlinings, all in the soft gray graphite of my own living penciling hand, when a distracted classmate I did not know very well leaned over my book and wrote in it with her ballpoint pen: I’m so bored!!! Are you going to the party tonight? I remember feeling like my blood had stopped and reversed course, not in the heart, where that is supposed to happen, but midvein, the feeling medically called shock. I remember trembling and soaring with anger, and I remember the weekend after the unfortunate incident took place, sitting for hours and hours in my room with a new book, trying to cope, copying by hand everything I had ever written in the old book, with the exception of that one bold, sorry, uninvited guest.

I remember, in college, trying to write a poem while I was stoned, and thinking it was the best thing I had ever written.

I remember reading it in the morning, and throwing it out.

I remember thinking, if W.S. Merwin could do it, why couldn’t I?

I remember thinking, because he is a god and I am a handmaiden with a broken urn.

I remember the first poetry reading I ever went to; I was in college and it was W.S. Merwin. He sat on a stool under a spotlight and the audience sat at his feet. He had a halo of curls and he looked like a god with his face in the spotlight. He wore blue velvet knee breeches, a flowing white shirt, and soft, flat yellow leather boots—more like slippers really—that came up to his knees, where his trousers began. Surely this is an imaginary memory, surely he never owned such clothing.

I remember liking the reading.

I remember being young and liking everything.

I remember liking a great many readings that, if I were to sit through them now, I would not like.

I remember hearing the great Spanish poet Rafael Alberti read. I was very young and so he seemed very old to me, with his shoulder-length white hair and his white suit. I was also shocked that he was accompanied by a woman who did not seem to be much older than I was; she wore a skirt so short you could see her underwear when she walked, and white plastic go-go boots, as they were called. I remember one of them carried a birdcage with a white dove in it, but to tell the truth I may have made this detail up, in my mind over the years, perhaps to emphasize to myself that it was, and remains, the strangest poetry reading I ever attended. Alberti read his poems in Spanish and his American translator, Ben Belitt, read them in English. Ben was sober, shy, outwardly conservative; he wore a tweed jacket and tie. Alberti gave Ben a toy pistol, what was called a cap gun, a toy capable of making very loud noises, and told Ben to shoot himself in the head whenever he, Alberti, gave the signal, and that is exactly what happened: Alberti would be reading in Spanish, pause, look at Ben, and Ben would reluctantly shoot himself in the head. But when Ben read the poems in English, Alberti had the pistol and from time to time shot himself in the head with real gusto. I felt it was a great lesson in translation.

I remember hearing James Merrill read, in August, in Vermont, in a barn. He wore a white linen suit and read to a very small group of people (no more than twenty) sitting on folding metal chairs; I remember a shaft of light coming in through an open window and that I spent most of the reading watching the dust motes floating there. Beyond that—nothing, except one detail, the memory of which overrides all else: outside, a car was parked (had he arrived in it?), its rear window was filthy, and someone had written in the dust clean me, in Greek. I always instinctively knew he had written it, and that rear window is my memory of James Merrill.

I remember my first Ashbery reading, also in college. Ashbery was reading from his new book, Three Poems, and he said that it was a lot like watching tv—you could open the book anywhere and begin reading, and flip around the book as much as you wanted to. I remember hating him for saying this. I remember the word sacrilege came to mind. I remember not liking that reading.

I remember, two years later, reading Three Poems on a grassy slope while across the road three men put a new roof on an old house, and I was in love with one of them. I could watch the men working as I read. I remember that everything I was reading was everything that was happening across the way—I would read a little, then look up, read a little, then look up, and I was blown apart by the feeling this little book was about my life at that moment, exactly as I was living it. I remember loving the book, and that it was one of the memorable reading experiences of my life.

I remember reading Rilke’s Duino Elegies again and again and again, until I “got” them, until something burst over me like a flood, and I remember, once again, weeping and weeping with a book in my hands.

I remember a reading W.S. Merwin gave in a tiny chapel, with the audience sitting in the pews, and how after a while we were all lost in a suspension of time—I know I was—and after the reading there was a qa and someone asked a bizarre question, she asked what time it was, and Merwin looked at the clock (there was a clock on the wall) and every one of us could see it had stopped, it had stopped in the middle of his reading, literal proof of what we already felt to be true, this spectacular thing, the dream of all poetry, to cut a hole in time.

I remember wanting to hear Anne Carson read, but I was very ill and had to be admitted to the hospital, and I postponed my going into the hospital until the next morning, after I had heard her read. I remember I needed a ride to the hospital but none of my friends could take me, they wouldn’t take me, because there were a lot of famous poets in town, and they wanted to hear them all. I remember this made me angry beyond words, but at the same time it was hypocritical of me, because I myself had put off my hospitalization until after a reading.

I remember the year after college I was broke, and Bernard Malamud, who had been a teacher of mine, sent me a check for $25 and told me to buy food with it, and I went downtown and bought The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats.

I remember John Moore, another teacher, who did the damnedest thing. We were studying Yeats, and at the beginning of one class Mr. Moore asked us if we would like to see a picture of Yeats. We nodded, and he held up a photograph of Yeats taken when he was six months old, a baby dressed in a long white gown. Maybe he was even younger, maybe he was an infant. I thought it was the funniest thing anyone had ever done, the strangest, most ridiculous, absurd thing to have done. But nobody laughed and if Mr. Moore thought it was funny, you couldn’t tell by his face. I always liked him for that. The poems we were reading in class were not written by a baby. And yet whenever I think of Yeats, I see him as a tiny baby wearing a dress—that photograph is part of my conception of the great Irish poet. And I love that it is so. We are all so small.

I remember going to New York for an awards ceremony, for I had won an award, and standing awkwardly in a grand lobby, and noticing an old man in a white hat who looked rather lost, and thinking he had come to see someone get an award, perhaps a granddaughter or someone like that, and I went up to him and asked him if I could help him, and he asked me where the men’s room was, and I walked him there, and while we were walking I asked him if perhaps a member of his family was receiving an award, and he said not that he knew of, and then he went into the bathroom and I waited for him outside and while I was waiting I remember thinking how surprised he would be when he found out that I, the woman who showed him the bathroom, was receiving an award, and then a man and a woman walked by in an important kind of hurry, saying, “We have lost Arthur Miller,” and then Mr. Miller came out of the bathroom, and smiled at me and shrugged his shoulders and went away with them.

I remember my first electric typewriter.

I remember sending my first short story out to a national magazine the summer after I had graduated from college and receiving the reply, “We are terribly sorry, but we don’t publish poetry.” I remember never looking back.

I remember meeting an Irish poet who had just come from Georgie Yeats’s funeral, and was still drunk, though he had also just flown from Ireland to the United States. He was furious and maudlin because Georgie, who outlived her husband by thirty years, died only weeks after she had given all her husband’s manuscripts to the Irish State, manuscripts she could have sold to an American university for millions of dollars; she did this because she had no money, was an alcoholic, and very much afraid in a moment of weakness she would break down and sell the manuscripts after all; the thought of such a betrayal she could not bear, so she gave the papers to the Irish State, died a few weeks later, and had a three-hundred-mile funeral cortege with only six people present—the poet who told me this was one of them—and not a single representative of the Irish State was among them.

I remember another thing the Irish poet told me: once, drinking in Dublin with Berryman, they had a shot of ouzo and Berryman immediately disappeared. It was a matter of hours before they discovered he had walked out of the bar, taken a taxi to the airport and flown directly to Athens using his American Express card.

I remember reading John Berryman’s “Dream Song #14” in my twenties, with its famous opening words, “Life, friends, is boring.” I remember being struck by its wit, irony, playfulness, delight: it is the kind of poem students read aloud to each other in a pool of laughter and admiration, and there is nothing wrong with that, for it reinforces their sense of cynicism and superiority, and it is crucial at that age we find a like-minded group to whom we can belong. I remember rereading the poem, not for the second time, some thirty years later, and being struck by its excruciating pain, which is entirely without irony. Many persons who knew Berryman have remarked that he spoke, always, without irony, which means, simply, that he always meant what he said. If you are going through a particularly stable period of your life, and you encounter his bleakest statements, you will react with chagrin and disbelief, as if listening to the ablest jester. If you are going through a particularly unstable period of your life, the straightforward articulation of suffering that has already twisted and dislocated its bearer renders a tension that will very nearly kill you. But I did not know this then.

I remember reading in the newspaper that Ernest Hemingway was dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, and reading the whole article to the end, which is a very strange memory, as I was ten years old and did not read the newspaper.

I remember figuring out Djuna Barnes was alive and living in Greenwich Village when I was in college and for a long time afterward, and I could have gone and visited her, but I assumed the author of my most beloved book had died before I was born.

I remember repeating this mistake for many years.

I remember making it yesterday.

I remember that Djuna Barnes was living in total obscurity that last decade of her life, and so was I—if we can extend the meaning of the word obscurity to include a state of non-alert mind.

I remember that I did not always know authors were ordinary people living ordinary lives, and that an ordinary life was an obscure life, if we can extend the meaning of obscure to mean covered up by dailiness, glorious dailiness, shameful dailiness, dailiness that is difficult to figure out, that is not always clear until a long time afterward. Obscure: not readily noticed, easily understood, or clearly expressed. Which is a pretty good definition of life.

I remember, I remember the house where I was born.

I remember driving by the hospital where I was born and glancing at it—I was in a car going sixty miles an hour—and feeling a fleeting twinge of specialness after which I had no choice but to let it go and get over it, at sixty miles an hour.

I remember I was a child, and when I grew up I was a poet. It all happened at sixty miles an hour and on days when the clock stopped and all of humanity fit into a little chapel, into a pinecone, a shot of ouzo, a snail’s shell, a piece of soggy rye on the pavement.

I remember the day I stood in front of a great, famous sculpture by a great, famous sculptor and didn’t like it. Such a moment is a landmark in the life of any young artist. It begins in confusion and guilt and self-doubt and ends in a triumphant breakthrough: I see the world and I see that I am free before it, I am not at the mercy of historical opinion and what I want to turn away from, I turn away from, what I want to approach, I approach. Twenty-five years later I read an essay by John Berger on Rodin and in it Berger was able to articulate all that I felt on that afternoon, standing in front of a great Rodin. But by then I was old and vain and the pride of being vindicated was, I admit, just as exciting as Berger’s intellectual condemnation of Rodin’s desire toward dominance.

I remember thinking my feelings implicated me with Rodin and though now I liked him less than ever, my repulsion was braided with a profound sympathy inseparable from my feelings for myself. And that is a landmark in the life of an old artist looking at art: the realization that none of us can ever be free from ourselves.

I remember the first time I realized the world we are born into is not the one we leave.

I remember feeling my head was made of sandpaper.

I remember feeling my head was made of the smoothest silver driftwood.

I remember Ben Belitt, Pablo Neruda’s friend and translator, bent down to pick up the New York Times from his doorstep one rainy morning (this was before they had figured out you could put the newspaper in a plastic sleeve) and the first thing he noticed was that the “newspaper had been crying,” as he put it, that the newsprint was smudged and ran together in watery lines down the page, just like mascara, and then he saw the announcement of Neruda’s death: Neruda had died the night before.

I remember telling this story many times, but leaving Ben out of it, pretending it was me it had happened to.

I remember the night I decided I would call myself a poet. I had been invited to a dinner party of literati, and I knew I would inevitably be asked what I did. I usually said I was a teacher; I was twenty-seven years old and had been writing poems since I was nine. I made up my mind that if anyone asked, I would say I was a poet; I left my apartment with resolve, a sense of mission, and security. And someone asked. Alain, a charismatic French poet wearing a blue velvet jacket and a long white scarf, asked me what I did; I took a deep breath and said I was a poet; his face distorted into a human field of disgust: “A poet!” he cried. “If you call yourself a poet then you cannot possibly be one; poets live in shadows and never admit and do not discuss, and besides, a real poet knows that all the poems in the world do not a poet make. I would no more call myself a poet than call myself a man—it is the height of arrogance, as any dog knows.” Dear me! I left the party in tears—hard cold tears of confusion and humiliation. It seemed my final hour.

I remember, I remember, everything you said to me. We went walking out in silence, underneath the cherry tree. Falling blossom, falling blossom, falling from the cherry tree. I remember, I remember, everything you did to me: Annie Lennox, “Twisted.” There, the famous refrain from English poetry finds its way into rock and roll, more than a hundred years later.

I remember “remember” means to put the arms and legs back on, and sometimes the head.

I remember, on the first Tuesday of every year, that I became a poet for a single, simple reason: I liked making similes for the moon. And when things get tough and complicated and threaten to drown me in their innuendoes, I come back to this clear, simple, and elemental fact, out of all facts the one most like the moon itself. O night, sleep, death and the stars!

I remember the moon was covered with dust and I used my finger to write clean me on its surface, and my finger was ever after covered with a fine gray blanket, as when you pull lint from the dryer.

I remember more than I can tell.

I remember heaven.

I remember hell.

Originally Published: July 2, 2012

COMMENTS (12)

On July 2, 2012 at 6:06pm Marie Harris wrote:
...and when I looked at my love by the almost full moon as we sat out in an open boat, the lyrics, entire, of "Moonlight Becomes You" sang in my head and I remembered my mother and how impossibly romantic she was, how gently disappointed. And I begin to write my own I remember, I remember, all the time thanking "Low Rain" for giving me her astounding gift of ... not an essay ... what? When a poet writes prose ...

On July 3, 2012 at 11:18am Cleveland Wall wrote:
I remember my first encounter with that Hood poem was a Mad Magazine spoof of it. Later I found his "Bridge of Sighs" cited in Poe's poetics and learned it off by heart and when I recited it for my brother-in-law the modern poet he said, "Boy, this guy sure likes to rhyme", for which I never really forgave him. Years later I espied a lovely old edition of Hood's poems in a bookstore window on Haight Street. The bookseller said he was trawling, knew that would pull someone in. It turned out many of his poems were wonderfully funny with archaic puns, my favorite being "The Ballad of Faithless Nellie Gray."

On July 4, 2012 at 2:41pm Christina Gardner wrote:
That's so beautiful.

On July 8, 2012 at 3:20am Anna wrote:
"I remember “remember” means to put the arms and legs back on, and
sometimes the head."

Thankyou, oh, thankyou.

On July 30, 2012 at 2:52pm Lynne Taetzsch wrote:
Thank you for "the realization that none of us can ever be free from ourselves." I can embrace that.

I remember my first electric typewriter also. Instead of spending the money my parents gave me for clothes when I went off to college, I bought a Smith Corona electric typewriter.

On August 13, 2012 at 3:59pm Jilly Dybka wrote:
Excellent; thanks for the reminder why she's one of my favorites.

On August 20, 2012 at 3:02pm Tom wrote:
This is some seriously delightful writing.

On August 21, 2012 at 10:22am Jo Grennan Martin wrote:
Well, now, I have something that I can think back upon and ponder. I will remember reading this essay, being "filled up" in the empty places of my creative soul...of which I have many. Thanks for the memories.

On August 24, 2012 at 11:38am Edward Hawkins wrote:
At college I remember laying on a grassy hillside one night looking at a sky filled with stars and no moon. Suddenly I was dizzy and felt as though I was going to be transported into the stars. It was only momentary and then I felt that something wonderful had happened and I was somehow a changed person.

On August 25, 2012 at 5:00am Aere Sticho wrote:
i remember what i should not remember: the rememberance of being not remembered.

On July 4, 2014 at 6:28pm tammy walker wrote:
I really enjoyed the poem it truely touched my heart

On October 4, 2014 at 3:17pm Ian Patterson wrote:
I remember Joe Brainard's great book 'I remember'. I remember that it was
considerably better than this imitation.

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This prose originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

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 Mary  Ruefle

Biography

Though poet and essayist Mary Ruefle was born outside Pittsburgh, she spent her youth moving around the United States and Europe with her military family.

She has written numerous books of poetry, including Indeed I Was Pleased with the World (2007) and The Adamant (1989), which won the Iowa Poetry Prize. A Little White Shadow (2006), her book of erasures—found texts in which all but a few words have been erased from the . . .

Continue reading this biography

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