From the windows of memory. . .

. . . 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

minnows weaving
    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
      repeatable longing.”


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,
, 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.

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3 Responses to “From the windows of memory. . .”

  1. we’re still on the (virtual) book tour of ‘a walk through the memory palace’ « Read Write Poem says:

    [...] Pamela Johnson Parker’s debut collection, A Walk Through the Memory Palace, can be found at, Dave Jarecki’s [...]

  2. Harrison Poetry says:

    She helped found an alternative magazine, Con Spirito , in which some of her early poetry was published.

    Harrison Poetry

  3. A Walk Through the Memory Palace - Memory Palace featured on Read Write Poem-sponsored blog tour says:

    [...] The final stops in the tour were at Dave Jarecki’s eponymous blog and Edible Detritus, David Moolten’s blog. (A review at another blog has since gone offline.) [...]


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