“. . . it is not poised on the tip of your tongue . . . “

Lethe, the River of Forgetting

Lethe, the River of Forgetting

These days I have some informal rules for reading poetry. The second is, if a poem is more than 30 lines long, I don’t have the mental energy to figure it out. The third is, if it’s about war or poverty any other political/social issue, I’m not interested.

The first is most important. If the poem is about being old or getting old, and the poet wasn’t at least 60 when she wrote it, I’m not only not interested, I am actively disdainful.

What does anyone in her 30s, or even her 50s, know about getting or being old?

Today is the Ninth Day of Christmas. If all things work out as usual, tomorrow will be the Tenth. Today the Roman Catholic Calendar, commemorates Saints Basil and Gregory Nazianzen. Tomorrow is but a “Christmas Weekday.” In the Common (Protestant) Lectionary, neither day is a special commemoration.

Ten years ago I was not in the process of getting old. I was the same flaky, discombobulated absent-minded professor I am today. I had lived in this apartment for two days (I moved here hastily, helped by a troupe of friends because my partner died in November, and the lease on our huge apartment ended on December 31). Some boxes deposited in this room that day are still here, never opened or sorted. That’s not because I’m getting old. When my late ex-wife and I bought a house in California in 1970, we left boxes unopened that were still unopened when we moved them to Iowa City in 1975.

So I’ll give myself leave to say that absent-mindedness preceded both professorship and aging.

The importance of the progression of days on the Church Calendar is unimaginable, I should think, to anyone under 60—especially to someone who has detached himself from almost all conscious acceptance of the beliefs of the church. But it’s in my DNA, and it’s helpful. It’s a kind of remembering that I do not have to accomplish by myself.

It’s a convenient way in my absent-mindedness to remember that tomorrow, January 3, is my birth date. The church has commemorations for most of the days in Christmas. But they have conveniently left open my birth date as simply, “Christmas Weekday.” No dead Christian will compete for attention. Easy to remember.

Billy who understands

Billy who understands

Billy Collins is a poet to whose works I return often these days. He was born in Brooklyn. We have little in common except we both have degrees from California universities. He is four years older than I.

He writes poetry in a kind of non-fancy, straight-forward language I imagine a Nebraska rancher would use should he turn poet. He writes poetry in style and content resembling what I would write if I were a genius instead of a minimally competent wordsmith.

What a 35-year-old or a 55-year-old cannot understand about aging is the new kind of loneliness that comes with being on the cusp of turning 69.

Even if one is surrounded by close friends (which, let’s face it, almost no one is), or one has a spouse, lover, partner—whatever name one might give such a person—what the 68-going-on-69-year-old faces is the preparation for absolute aloneness at the moment of death.

This is not—I repeat, not—depressing or sad. I don’t have any reason to believe I’ll die soon. I’m not suicidal or a danger to myself or others because I’m writing this, which presupposes my thinking about it. It’s merely a fact. And we have structured an entire society and culture based on avoiding facts wherever and whenever possible. Think about the fighting (not discussing, hardly even arguing) over healthcare—especially end-of-life care. Or, even more unthinkable, think about burying a member of your family yourself without a licensed funeral director. How real would that make death?

We do not want—under any circumstances—to deal with, to think about, to share our feelings regarding, the fact of our death. Or even the impossible task of growing old.

Unless you are 69 or thereabouts, you do not want to think about the FACT that

 . . .  one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones
.

(Collins, Billy. “Forgetfulness.” Sailing Around the Room: New and Selected Poems. Random House: 2002. Notice, Collins was 61 when he wrote this poem.)

And when those memories disappear one is left “holding the bag,” In this case, one of the original meanings of the phrase, a bagful of worthless stocks. All the valuable shares have been sold off, and only the worthless ones remain. Penny stocks that used to be blue chips. I can mix metaphors with the worst of them. Thank goodness, Billy Collins mixes with the best of them. When one has forgotten enough, one is well on her “own way to oblivion where [she] will join those who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.”

Forgotten everything useful.

Forgetting, by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
nver even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

I have a vague Idea what I’m trying to remember. It’s the sense of belonging I used to have. I can’t quite put it into words. Belonging to a community. Belonging to a group of like-minded friends. Belonging to a loving, supportive relationship. That’s what one must ultimately forget.

Uncomfortable—grievous—as it may seem, it’s necessary to forget. If one did not forget, one could not—would not be willing to—gather oneself to oneself and begin to understand this new kind of unavoidable solitude, to get ready for this “oblivion” where we’ve even forgotten how to ride a bike. Forgetting, at least in some “cosmic” sense, is not a bad thing. It’s ultimately necessary.

Some of my family, not forgotten

Some of my family, not forgotten

One Response to “. . . it is not poised on the tip of your tongue . . . “

  1. Pingback: “. . . we will remember every single thing, recall every word, love every loss . . .” | Me, senescent

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