Monday, June 22, 2015

`Not the Intact Garden We Remember'

Eric Ormsby writes in “Childhood House” (Coastlines, 1992):

“Somehow I had assumed
That the past stood still, in perfected effigies of itself,
And that what we had once possessed remained our possession
Forever, and that at least the past, our past, our child-
Hood, waited, always available, at the touch of a nerve,
Did not deteriorate like the untended house of an
Aging mother, but stood in pristine perfection, as in
Our remembrance.”

My brother and his family live in our childhood house. It remains my ideal of a dwelling, built of red brick and surrounded by trees, simple and substantial. Houses of wood seem less real, more like movie studio mock-ups. It was built by my father’s father (a Polish immigrant who died in that house when I was an infant) and his three sons (all veterans of World War II), and bears traces of a time before my childhood, such as the hinged steel door through which coal was once delivered. It would have been stored in a bricked-off room in the basement we called the fruit cellar after the Mason jars arranged on the cobwebbed shelves. In that musty room I discovered my first Playboy magazine in a pile of newspapers, and later concealed a purloined bottle of gin in the rafters. No “perfected effigies” here. Ormsby has learned the lessons of age, and loss and memory, as the rest of us must: 

“I see that this isn’t so, that
Memory decays like the rest, is unstable in its essence,
Flits, occludes, is variable, sidesteps, bleeds away, eludes
All recovery; worse, is not what it seemed once, alters
Unfairly, is not the intact garden we remember, but
Instead, speeds away from us backwards terrifically
Until when we pause to touch that sun-remembered
Wall, the stones are friable, crack and sift down,
And we could cry at the fierceness of that velocity
If our astonished eyes had time.” 

There is temporal as well as spatial vertigo. When I peer too long into the past – mine and the world’s – I grow dizzy, with an edge of nausea. Yet, like Lot’s wife, I always look back, because so often the past is more interesting than the present, with teasing hints of muted narrative. This habit of past-peering should not be confused with nostalgia or longing for a nonexistent Golden Age when life was simple and people were good. No, the past is a more compelling story than the present (the future, of course, is a blank and never arrives). Consider two of Ormsby’s titles: Facsimiles of Time and Time’s Covenant. Theodore Dalymple strikes the proper balance in “Time Past” Threats of Pain and Ruin (New English Review Press, 2014): 

“There are some people whose imagination and emotions are stirred more by the past than by the future, and I am among them. We to whom time past is more important than any time to come are not world builders, we improve nothing; on the other hand, we seldom destroy anything. We tend to pessimism rather than to optimism, or at any rate to expectations that are not extravagant; supposedly imminent solutions to life’s problems, after all, seem never to arrive, and disillusion is more common than fulfilment of promise. A disappointment anticipated is a disappointment halved; pessimists are therefore happy in the long run, or happier than optimists.”

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