Give me a poem starting ‘I remember’ and I will suggest you drop the first two words. And yet . . .

. . . one of things poetry does – that it is surely driven to do – is preserve memories. Little things that happen, thing that can’t be allowed to go unrecorded. (Sometimes big things too, of course, though the size isn’t the issue: it’s the immediacy.)

Why do I bossily score out the words ‘I remember’? Two reasons. First: because too many poems start that way, so it’s old hat. Second: because it invites a tone of easy nostalgia: here comes a memory we all share and love.

In fact, the memory poems I like best (at least I think this is true) draw me into a memory that’s vivid, fresh and alive, but it’s not my remembered experience, though I may recognise parts of it. It belongs to the poet. Until I read and learn to love the poem, that is. After that, it belongs to me. I own shares in Wordsworth’s daffodils. I often visit Hilaire Belloc’s inn in the High Pyrenees.

Such a wonderful, and endlessly available resource: memory. And magical too. In a lifetime we visit thousands of places, and can call to mind only a few. We were at school with hundreds of faces and can visualise only a couple. We wear countless garments in our lives and forget their colour, texture and style completely. But a few precise moments stick in the mind. They haunt us like clues to an unsolved mystery.

This is a lengthy introduction to Rosemary Hector’s Knowing Grapes. But one of the things this poet does is draw you into memories, vividly enough for you to possess them. Here is ‘Plums’, for example:

Red-black against the pale blue institutional plate,
the plums sat in a puddle of their own blood.
On Thursdays, always stewed fruit with a flood
of custard, poured from a jug of dented metal.
It was odd how adept I became at the count
of fruits per head, serving in equal measure, could
recognise this fruit was little harmed
by the kitchen process; was, in fact, quite good.
All class three watched as I spooned them out.
The first plate was passed to the senior at the end.
Gonads again, said the small boy to my left.

The first line captures attention with the colour. It recreates the photographic image, without needing to say ‘I remember’ (although this is an ‘I remember’ poem). The reader may also recall the colour of stewed plums, never a popular pudding at school dinner. But the “puddle of blood” and the “flood / of custard” has humour in it. And as for that jug of “dented metal”, not only did my mother have one, but there’s a replica lurking at the back of my cupboard downstairs. So yes, all this chimes with memories of my own: I’m experiencing nostalgia, comforting and nice.

And the voice of the narrator is so grown-up. She is the adult, serving the small boys. Her language is confident and controlled. It is the voice of the British Empire, “adept / at the count / of fruits per head, serving in equal measure”. A whole world in a phrase.

But then the last line! “Gonads again, said the small boy to my left.” Dismissive, precise, authoritative. The adult world crumbles in the face of a child’s summary. He doesn’t say “balls”, as he might well have done. He uses the biological term to sum up his (low) opinion of the pudding. He will be talking like this when he’s eighty, if he makes it that far. Besides, it’s clear, isn’t it, that the whole of class three calls plums “gonads” (and probably gonads “plums”, come to that).

So this is my memory too now. Each time I revisit it, I get the same thunk of satisfaction.

‘Plums’ can be found in Knowing Grapes with a number of engaging companions: emotive memories, served without pretension but with delight.






8 thoughts on “THE FLEAS THAT TEASE”

  1. Love the poem Nell – all of it, especially (and as you might guess) the gonads. Talking of school memories, I tried contacting a few people through Friends Reunited a few years ago. Nobody could remember who I was. 🙁

  2. Annie, how could they possibly forget you? I mean that in the nicest sense!

    However, sometimes the people with the best memories of their peers are not remembered by other people. Maybe there are rememberers and rememberees. Observers and observees.

  3. Yes I think so. I actually went to nine schools and adopted a head-down-and-blend-in way of coping with all the new starts. Making up for it now!
    Great ‘do’ at Torriano by the way – really glad I went. Very good to put faces to some of my pamphlets – Davina, Gina, Fiona and Mike! Also to meet Tim Love (need to get his pamphlet) and see Peter Daniels again. x x

  4. Annie, I did find someone through Friends Reunited and she did remember me. We talked a few times on the phone and intended, vaguely, to meet. Then a few months ago she began posting her support on Facebook for Britain First, a self-proclaimed “patriotic street organisation.” I googled their website. She has now been defriended. 🙁

    I rather like stewed plums! I agree, Nell, about the words “I remember.” When I hear them at an open mike or similar, I switch off: too many poems around that are half-sunk in easy nostalgia.

  5. I Remember

    I remember, I write –
    the words bleed a half-imagined verse
    ripped from a wound in the grey-fleshed past.

    This memory
    is a stained-glass window
    from a church less Chartres
    than garden centre kitsch.

    It was shattered by a brick
    wrapped in fools gold
    hurled by the strong right arm
    of certainty
    into a maelstrom of shifting details.

    This photo-shopped memory is nonetheless true
    though the objective denies its beauty.

    But where, I might ask, is the one true poem
    I started out to write.

    Roderick Manson (13th May 2014)

    It’s probably a deficiency somewhere in the male psyche that telling us, in effect, that we can’t do something is the best way of ensuring that we do. Sorry.

  6. You can, like any other poet, do precisely what you want.
    After that, it depends what you want to happen next . . .

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