Sunday, February 15, 2015


The older we get, the more we are able to understand and appreciate irony. Here is an example. Last night, Audrey and I went to see the movie “Still Alice,” about a woman who is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The main character was losing her memory, and my mind was flooded with memories. Which seems pretty ironic to me.

Here is just one example. In the middle of the film, actress Julianne Moore opens a speech she is delivering on her personal struggles with her disease with a quote from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop. The poem, entitled “One Art,” begins:

            The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
            so many things seem filled with the intent
            to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

And I left the movie for a few seconds and was drawn back to my memories of Elizabeth Bishop, perhaps my favorite American poet, not so much because of her writing, which is wondrous, but because of my memories of her.

When I was in high school, I used to take out from the public library Caedmon Records on which poets read from their work. Now, I know that sounds pretty pedantic, and it is. But that’s how I was (and still am, according to Audrey). My favorite of those albums featured Bishop reading from her works.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poems are filled with strong images. I might even call them “manly” if I was stereotyping. And her voice on the Caedmon recording was powerful. I imagined her as being tall and strong. (During my freshman year in college, my first English professor, Alice Miskimin, had that type of stature. She was a good teacher and was known for her toughness, as a grader and hockey player. In fact, I once heard that she was not allowed to play in the intramural hockey league with other students and professors because her body checks during games were sometimes too violent. But I digress.)

So you get an image in your head, and it sticks. During my junior year in college, I was taking a poetry writing seminar with Mark Strand, who would later be named American poet laureate.
Mark Strand gives a reading of his poems.
One day, Strand announced that one of his mentors, Elizabeth Bishop, was coming to campus. The two poets seemed well matched to me. After all, Strand was well over six feet tall with a huge head filled with words and images. I figured they would make an impressive pair, physically-speaking. Excited, I arrived at the reading early, got a good seat, and readied to watch “my” Elizabeth Bishop stride to the podium in all her height and strength. And out walked a “garden club lady,” hair recently colored and curled in a beauty parlor, glasses dangling from her neck on what seemed to be a string of pearls. I’m sure my mouth fell open with surprise.
The "real" Elizabeth Bishop-- small of stature
but powerful of voice and image
Then she began to read, and it was the same voice with the same mesmerizing power. I don’t remember what she read that day. I just remember being both surprised and impressed by the “real” Elizabeth Bishop, who was so different from my mind’s eye and so much the same.

And almost as quickly, my mind returned to Julianne Moore and her character’s fading memory. “Still Alice” is not an easy movie for people my age to watch. Almost all of us battle with losing words and names and focus for brief spans of time. And we fear more permanent losses. We begin making lists for everything, and we post a file on our computer with all of the passwords we need to open up electronic doorways to our information. My file used to be named “Passwords” until a Geek Squad member helping me clean out a computer virus suggested I use a different name, in case someone broke into my computer and began looking around. And what about those passwords? If we make them complex enough to deter hackers, we may never find our stuff again. Ironies that build on ironies.

Speaking of memories—Audrey and I are planning to watch SNL’s 40th anniversary retrospective tonight. And we’ll remember the bits from the earliest shows much better than those from contemporary shows. Not so much because our short-term memory is failing, but because we can seldom stay awake long enough these days to get much past the opening half-hour of the show.                  

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