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.