Faces of Memory: The author’s Preface to the three long poems that make up this collection: The Bells of Swettl, The Psaltery, The Trinity Suites

What is memory?  A mystery, surely. Memory reveals.  These three poems are sustained and nourished by personal memories.  The poems are not strictly speaking autobiographical, but they are oriented by memories of a life—mine.  And who am I? I am a committed Christian, a man who, at the age of 29, was found floundering in the midst of life and then pulled out of the mud by Jesus Christ.  These poems are my story, obliquelyrendered.  Much in them is imagined, and happened to me only in my mind; but what happens in one’s mind is one’s own, it is part of one’s autobiography. Imagination feeds on memory; indeed, thought itself—the conceptual dimension of consciousness—which we sometimes think of as a kind of abstract operation of the faculty of reason, feeds on memory too, with the difference that its inventions are pressed through a fine-meshed sieve, whereas the imagination flies up through the roof of the kitchen where the sieve is being manipulated, and tracks the heavens. In these poems I’m sometimes in the kitchen, thinking; sometimes I’m soaring; and sometimes I’m simply remembering. My life is displayed indirectly, within imaginary frameworks.  Memory ranges across the panoply of time, and what it finds in the past is as much shaped by the present and by future expectations as by events that happened once.

These three poems were written separately over many years, with no attempt to link them.  They are unified by the inspirational force of the poet’s memory.  Each inhabits memory in a distinctive way and deploys memory’s wealth with different objectives and artistic strategies.  While the material is linked to personal experience, the range of the poems is universal.  The various perspectives on, and uses of, memory create a three-dimensional portrait of the central character—myself—who winds in and out of the poems, now as narrator, now as participant, now as a voice “off” in soliloquy fashion.  This person—“myself”—is the poet who is projecting in art his life as the man who was found floundering in mud at the age of 29 and then lifted onto solid ground by Jesus Christ.  My faith as a committed Christian—the poet’s faith—is not an accessory to my person, considered as it were from the outside and whose content I coolly evaluate; it is the heart of who I am, as a man and hence as a poet. It cannot be abstracted from my life or my art without losing sight of my identity.  My beliefs are essentially part of me, not add-ons, so it would be quite impossible for me to make sense of my life (or to write poetry) without expressing them, indirectly or directly.  

The post-modern climate in which we live affirms in principle the validity of this assertion and licenses my endeavour; it favours the particular, even though, perversely, it tends to be ill-disposed towards the particularity that is Christian faith and towards poetry that openly expresses that faith.  Readers of my own poetry may, of course, hold different world-views from mine, but they cannot for this reason dismiss the world-view out of which I live and create, or object that explicitly expressed “religious faith” must have no part in poetry, at least in what is thought to be “modern” poetry. What a poet believes must find expression, in one way or another, in his or her art, otherwise the work will lack authenticity.  What counts is whether the poet is a poet.

Poets among my readers will be the first to understand that a poem is more than the vehicle for sense observations or emotions or insights: it is, underneath all these, the fruit of convictions about reality, whether these convictions are altogether clear in the poet’s mind or not. The convictions may or may not be explicitly articulated, but they are there, necessarily.  What is said, if it is authentic, flows out of the heart, out of the “inner man”. The notion that a poem must not “teach” is correct only in a sense.  All poems necessarily carry their author’s existential views, though the form in which these views—philosophical or theological—are expressed must be poetical, not deliberately didactic. It is in this sense that one is correct to say that a poem must not teach.  A poem by a Christian must not be a sermon, but, just as much as a poem by a materialist or a philosophical skeptic, it may legitimately articulate the author’s theological convictions, provided this is carried out artistically and driven by poetical considerations, and not the other way around.  A poem does not aim to convince but to show; but it arises, as I’ve said, out of deep convictions, and its “showing” may well involve explicit expression of these convictions, if and when this is poetically appropriate. My “inner man”, who finds expression in these poems, is shaped and inspired by the person of Jesus Christ and by my experience of his Life within me, in the Form of the Holy Spirit.  I could not conceivably abstract this experience, and the commitments and convictions that inform it, from my poetical account of roads I’ve travelled and persons I’ve encountered over the years.

An aspect of the mystery of memory, with respect to the brain’s capacity to recall and evoke events from one’s past, is its redemptive power.  Memory really does, in a limited but undeniably real sense, bring back to life things drowned in time.  Of course, this has nothing to do, strictly speaking, with redemption in the religious, expiatory sense; yet memory’s power to reclaim, at least momentarily, what was lost—to bring it out of darkness into light—does carry an echo of redemption as understood within the Christian tradition.  Even when the memories brought up from darkness are themselves dark, their emergence into consciousness can open the way to healing and wholeness, as any pastoral counsellor or psychiatrist well knows.  This power to gather together bits and pieces of a life, and to integrate them, can provide meaning and inspire hope; it contributes to order and maturity.  The way memory operates in these three poems exemplifies this.  

Poetry in turn transforms the constituents of memory into something solid and permanent, an objective artefact, in the same way that pressure transforms sedimentary deposits into hard rock. In the first poem, The Bells of Swettl, a framework for the operation of memory is supplied by the seven daily offices celebrated by monks in a Benedictine monastery.  Each office corresponds to a time of day and also to a time of life, and its delineation, with the monks enacting their role accordingly, is accompanied by personal recollections or observations of the narrator prompted by the day/life period being evoked and by the association of images in the narrator’s memory.  The onward movement of the successive offices carries the narrator and the monks through life and then through death itself, opening out into the Resurrection Life, where the Eucharistic celebration evoked at the start of the poem is fulfilled in the Heavenly Feast with the Risen Christ.

In the second poem, The Psaltery, the plucking of the psaltery’s chords is the evocative source of the operation of memory.  From section to section, the narrator moves across his life, now describing events or places seen, now narrating stories, now musing on the sense of what he has experienced and on his awareness of the years passing. An extensive tale, quasi-mythic, makes up the last part of the poem, in which the narrator recounts the story of his being lost once in a wild forest when, as a young man, he’d gone out alone in search of the cabin of a legendary old pioneer, and how the sound of a distant river saves him out of his desperate plight and leads him home.  The tale echoes Christian motifs.

In the third poem, The Trinity Suites, three sections, each comprising five poems, evoke a variety of memories from the narrator’s past, categorized in terms of the biblical picture of creation and humanity marred and wounded by rebellion against the Creator, and ultimately redeemed by Christ. The poems/memories in each section address in one way or other the section’s theme, and their forms, diction, and length vary widely from poem to poem.  The inspirational reference for the structure of the sections is Bach’s Cello Suites, each section, like each of Bach’s suites, having its peculiar tonality that persists throughout the sequential movements.  Some of the poems are straightforwardly autobiographical; others, while jumping off from the narrator’s personal experience, range far beyond it.  The canvas is large, thematically and geographically; evocations of loss and corruption, of violence, horror, and death, are succeeded by visions of love, serenity, and heavenly glory. There is history, there is nature, there is epiphany. The theme of memory itself, operative in the first two poems, is present here only in so far as each poem is in fact rooted in or evocative of a particular memory in the narrator’s life.  In The Trinity Suites, the last of the three poems, I do not reflect onmemory as such, as I do, in different ways, in the first two poems—yet memory is at the heart of the work. Thus this third poem provides a third perspective on the use of memory in poetry to create imaginary worlds.

These three poems are dramatic narratives. Each is distinct in its structure and style, yet together they make up a coherent whole, which is why I title the collection Faces of Memory. They tell all kinds of stories, conjure up many lands, paint a variety of characters.  Threaded through the three poems are the central relationships of the narrator to his father, mother, and stepmother.  The theme of homeis recurrent.  The father theme, featuring both the natural father and the heavenly Father, binds the poems together, without this having been in any way intentional. The Christian themes are sometimes oblique, sometimes direct, and are always dramatized in terms of the narrator’s life and personal memories, for which the parameters of the Christian gospel are the fundamental, integrating reference. 

Together, the poems constitute a kind of epic, of a distinctively contemporary kind.  Through their several lenses of varying depths of field, natural and spiritual horizons open to the reader; movement in space and time is coordinated poetically; and now and then an eschatological dimension beyond what we normally experience in space and time suddenly appears in the midst of our concrete reality.  The poetic discourse is “courteous”, in the sense that Adam Kirsch uses that term in his essay on C. D. Wright in his book of essays on modern poetry, The Modern Element(pp. 113, 114). Underneath the narrative surface, the material in these poems is complex, like life itself; but the complexity is coherent and accessible, open to the exploration of the reader, and its dramatic strength and emotion are there for him or her to experience viscerally.  This is participatory poetry, drawing the reader into voyages of the imagination. It is meant to be enjoyed.

Faces of Memory available on Amazon