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My Memory Palace

July 20, 2011

by Robbi Nester

The ancients found remembering was simple
if they built in memory a place to stash
each name or fact. I have no need
of this old tactic. The building rose itself,
no mere mnemonic, without my effort
or my will, needing no intention on my part
to make it stand, secluded, a palace
or a prison on a street not quite the one I knew.

For years, I wore the windows watching out,
aspiring to the world beyond this
faded square of sky, though sometimes
it might hint at nascent drama:
coiled green hose a lurking
mamba. And there, the borders
of a country yet to be discovered:
the spot I scratched into the wallpaper
beside my bed, hoping if I made it
big enough I could climb through, like
the children in the books I read,
entering another world.

The clothes hang still, waiting forever
to be worn. And there, my mother’s vanity,
where I would sit and gaze into the glass
trying on her earrings and her pearls, her
broad-shouldered jackets, inspecting
photographs of relatives I’d never meet,

all this spreads before me, each room
multiplied in memory, a sheaf of dining rooms;
the living room in all its incarnations.
Here, the French provincial sideboard, gift
of a wealthy relative, rules the room;
and now, eclipsed—an avalanche of envelopes
encroaches. And now the roaches
and the rats, the bags of trash I helped to clear away.

No people walk these rooms; no conversations
can be heard. Harsh words and gentle ones
do not endure. Only the doors and windows
where I walk in dream and reverie
fan out like drafts, an intricate origami I could
never fathom. Now that these walls
are someone else’s legacy, I can never leave.


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Robbi Nester lives and does yoga in Southern California and blogs at Shadow Knows.

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  1. July 21, 2011 at 10:20 am

    My dissertation was partly about the medieval ars memorativa, so I read this poem on the with particular interest. Haunting words about bbeing haunted–love especially these lines:”… the spot I scratched into the wallpaper
    beside my bed, hoping if I made it
    big enough I could climb through, like
    the children in the books I read,
    entering another world. “

  2. July 22, 2011 at 10:28 am

    Thanks Mary.

  3. Robin Hudechek
    July 22, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Like the ancients, you do build in memory–though words are your brick and mortar. Which last longer–the buildings or the names and memories etched in statues, edifices or on tombs, etc., or the poems which can be shared in print, or orally as they were by traveling bards of medieval days and other eras? Or the poems written in today’s digital world that can be spread through online magazines like this one to hundreds or perhaps thousands of readers who might not otherwise get a chance to pick up and read a printed anthology with your work in it?

    Regardless, it seems to me that it is the human need to preserve and share memories which is important. I can’t help but think of the traveling griots of Africa who carried hundreds of years of a family or clan’s history in their heads, or the men in farenheit 451 who carried at least one book in their heads to be preserved after all the libraries had been burned down, etc.

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful, haunting poem. I can really relate to the childhood worlds you describe, and the magical merging of childhood memory and imagination. Some of the poem clearly relates the flashes of memory and the pain you must have felt when you went through your parents’ house: “and now the roaches, and the rats, the bags of trash I helped to clear away.” Like the last reader I love the leap of imagination in the words: “the spot I scratched into the wallpaper…” In this poem readers get to soar in imaginary worlds in one moment, then find themselves grounded in the very real ghosts of memory. I liked it very much and hope this poem finds many readers to share in your memories.

  4. July 22, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    Robin,
    This is a lovely tribute, and tells me that you must soon add to the trove of memory with your own writing. I hope you soon sit down and continue what you started so long ago. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  5. July 23, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Confetti, Robbi! I’m glad to see this one up…

  6. July 24, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Thanks Marly!

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