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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Poetic Power of Memory

Air Date: Week of April 6, 2012

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Janice Harrington (Photo:Rachel Eliza Griffithe)

Poet Janice Harrington writes of how we see what’s around us, and the immediacy and intensity of family, in her poem “What There Was.”

Transcript

GELLERMAN: The month of April is many things. Poet T.S. Eliot termed it the cruelest month, and, it is after all tax time, but in April we also celebrate Earth Day - that would be on the 22nd - and Poetry Month. To mark both planet and poetry during April, we have a series of offerings. Here’s our first.

HARRINGTON: I'm Janice Harrington. Something that I heard many years ago, which struck me, was someone who said: we never see a tree. You might see an oak, you might see a willow, but no one has seen a tree. And it made me realize how I go through a day looking at things as classes of objects, rather than as specific entities.

And there’s another marvelous saying from the Luba people of Africa: it’s a grave offense to them if you do not greet them when you see them, because to do so is to say that they are ghost. And so when I go through the world, or in my writing, I’m trying to greet what’s around me - through that specificity, through their name so that they exist. And if they exist, if nature exists, I exist.

What There Was:
Pine, catalpa, pin oak, persimmon,
but not tree.

Hummingbird, hoot owl, martin, crow,
but not bird.

Cannas, honeysuckle, cockscomb, rose,
but not flower.

Wood smoke, corn, dust, outhouse,
but not stench.

A spider spinning in a rain barrel,
the silver dipper by the back porch,
tadpoles shimmying against a concrete bank,
but not silence.

A cotton row, a bucket lowered into a well,
a red dirt road, a winging crow,
but not distance.

A rooster crowing, cows lowing in the evening,
wasps humming beneath the eves, hounds
baying, hot grease, but not music.

My mother running away at fifteen,
my grandmother lifting a truck to save a life,
an uncle at Pearl Harbor, Webster sitting at the back of the bus when he looked as white as they did, but not stories.

The entrails of a slaughtered sow, the child born
with a goat’s face, the cousin laid on a railroad
track, the fire that burned it all - but not death.

This poem, a snuff tin sated with the hair
of all our dead - my mother’s nighttime talks
with her dead father, my great-grandmother’s
clothes passed down, passed down, but not memory.

 

Links

Janice Harrington's Website

Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone (poetry) . BOA Editions, 2007.

 

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