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QUINTESSENCE

The Art of Memory

THIS ROOM AND EVERYTHING IN IT
Lie still now
while I prepare for my future,
certain hard days ahead,
when I'll need what I know so clearly this moment.

I am making use
of the one thing I learned
of all the things my father tried to teach me:
the art of memory.

I am letting this room
and everything in it
stand for my ideas about love
and its difficulties.

I'll let your love cries,
those spacious notes
of a moment ago,
stand for distance.

Your scent,
that scent
of spice and a wound,
I'll let stand for mystery.

Your sunken belly
is the daily cup
of milk I drank
as a boy before the morning prayer.

The sun on the face
of the wall
is God, the face
I can't see, my soul,

and so on, each thing
standing for a separate idea,
and those ideas forming the constellation
of my greater idea.
And oen day, when I need
to tell myself something intelligent
about love,

I'll close my eyes
and recall this room and everything in it:
My body is estrangement.
This desire, perfection.
Your closed eyes my extinction.
Now I've forgotten my
idea. The book
on the windowsill, riffled by wind...
the even-numbered pages are
the past, the odd-
numbered pages, the future.
The sun is
God, your body is milk...

useless, useless...
your cries are song, my body's not me...
no good... my idea
has evaporated...your hair is time, your thighs are song...
it had something to do
with death...it had something
to do with love.

- Li-Young Lee

The beauty in the lines of Young's poem, in particular the opening stanzas, remind me today of memory and the purpose our reflections serve in constructing, as Jean Paul opined, a refuge where "Memory is the only Paradise from which we cannot be driven." I find myself touching on this thought as I reflect on the year passing and those decades before that. The New Year brings a certain personal melancholy now, a telltale sign I am sure. Too old to believe in absolute fresh starts, too aware of the ebb and flow of fortune to forget a good year may be backed by one less so and a bad year never necessarily grants a change in luck ahead. I find myself, like the shipwrecked tourist clinging to shards of golden days that bob away toward the horizon, possessed of a rather existential anxiety - irrationally sorry to see even hard days depart because they may be kinder than any ahead.

Is this wisdom? Or the wear and tear of survival? This sense that a happy life is a parenthesis of joyful pauses in a long run of accidental flats and sharps that not only leave us breathless but disoriented and dismayed the song remains, still, so unfamiliar? Perhaps the longer we live the clearer we comprehend unexpected joy greases the skids, so to speak; gives life the glide and momentum we need to enthusiastically ride the wave back to the crest. I find, as 2011 winds down, that I am grateful to the unencumbered, lighthearted moments within the march of days; that I will remember the tough as nails transitions and sorrows, but what lingers in my heart is joy. That all we experience, love, and regret, is"of spice and a wound/I'll let stand for mystery."

Young writes of love and his lover and a road ahead both long and hard and I envision embracing the new year with hope. That like the poet, I am "letting this room/and everything in it" speak my ideas about life. That presence, awareness, even the imprint of detail, forms the continuum that is the "art of memory."
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