. . . a review of A Walk Through the Memory Palace by Pamela Johnson Parker
What strikes me most about Parker’s brief collection, winner of the 2009 Qarrtsiluni Chapbook Contest (judged by Dinty Moore) is just how easily the book lulls the reader into the plane of memory. Parker does a wonderful job connecting us with moments that belong to others, which in turn brings us back to ourselves. Suddenly we are at the window gazing at “stands of green bamboo,” and our own version of “Old Mrs. Sonnenkratz.”
A Walk Through is more about the observed than the observer. The poems unfold in a way that feels akin to sitting with an old friend who answers the question, “How are you?” by describing what she’s seen.
Most of the poems are situational, starting with the lead piece, “78 RPM,” (a first kiss moment between two young lovers, away from the watchful eye of a doting aunt). In each unique setting, Parker gives us enough room to make our own emotional connections — nervousness, anxiety, excitement, lust. Rather than tell us how any of this feels, we’re allowed to remember. As we squint at the images that churn up, we fall deeper into our own memories and pasts.
Time and again, image leads us into these scenes. In delivering her poems to us, Parker paints just enough fuzz over her pictures so that when we focus in, we have no choice but to latch on to whatever emotion swims by. This see-saw between the lives of others and of our own comes to a head in “Taking a Walk with You,” the sixth poem in the collection of ten.
The poem starts with an epigraph from Kenneth Koch, “Walk forwards and backwards with me.” Koch was part of the New York School of poetry, renown for their reliance on objectivity and image. It’s no wonder then that Parker creates a connection here with Koch, as the poem, even as it touches mortality, has more to do with the walk than the walkers.
This brief pass through the woods is as sad and real as anything I’ve read in a while.
“Gazing into Wet
Creek’s tapestry, through
the warp and weft of
in shafts of sunlight, echoed
in the shadows of
the sawgrass swaying,
in the small stream’s undulance
toward the river
torquing to the Ohio
that somehow will spill
into the Atlantic,
all salt spray hissing
against rocks: the sound of
Later, when the poem shifts inward, Parker keeps us tied to the physical, focusing on the composition of the human anatomy rather than the stories we tell ourselves.
“Dear, the stents in
your heart wend the same;
the plate and screws in my knees
tell me before the skies do
how they’ll be rain,”
Parker wants us to feel these things in our bones, then let the body convey the emotions attached. Before the poem ends, she offers one brief glimpse into our own unspoken longing, but again does so in a tactful, subtle manner.
“Now as we thread
our way through cattails
in gauzy light, there’s this
pause, an inrush of breath, holding
it, holding your hand
watching the water, the way
it flows, feeling my body moving
toward yours, as the water reflects us
as we were then, in its
mottled plane, mirror,
mirror, our younger
faces gazing back
at us from their side
of this day,”
Another poet could have sent the narrator into the water, leaving any disconnected readers alone on the banks. Parker, instead, keeps us walking:
“through cattails, through
muscadine, weaving through scything
sawgrass, sumac, taking the path
of least resistance.”
Whether her life as a medical editor lends itself to such objectivity or not, Parker certainly understands that the path of least resistance is the surest way through the void. With her calm language and quiet melancholy, she lets us build our own memories and name the emotions that come with them, reminding us of all the lovely things that make our time on earth so fleeting.
Read more reviews of A Walk Through the Memory Palace as part of Read Write Poem’s virtual book tour.