Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

A Walk Through the Memory Palace

Welcome to the first stop on Read Write Poem’s latest virtual book tour. The touring chapbook is A Walk Through the Memory Palace (qarrtsiluni, 2009) by Pamela Johnson Parker. Memory Palace was the winner of the 2009 (and, I hope, first annual) qarrtsiluni chapbook contest, judged by guest judge Dinty Moore and managed by qarrtsiluni managing editors Beth Adams and Dave Bonta.

Moore chose an amazing manuscript and Adams and Bonta produced a lovely chapbook with cover art by Carrie Ann Baade. In addition to the paper copy, they created an online edition, which I really like since they eschewed the .pdf route and actually built a website, which is, in essence, an online book. You can also listen to Parker read her poems there, thus making the online edition something more than just a book posted online.

So, on to the book. I tend to start a book by thinking about its title and this one required a bit of research. A memory palace is a tool used for memorizing sequences and recalling memories. I did a quick walk through parts of the modern collective memory palace of the internet to come to an understanding of the term.

Based on reading at Wikipedia and a post on Litemind, it seems the basic idea is that in order to remember things, the memorist creates in her mind a visualization of a familiar place. By filling that map with objects and associating those objects with memories, she can walk through her memory palace and recall those memories. Sequences can be recalled by taking the same route through the memory palace that was taken when the memories were associated with the objects within the palace.

With this in mind, I found myself sitting back in my chair and allowing myself to walk through a house I lived it when I was growing up, trying to see things that were there. These objects led to stories and other associations from my memory and as I walked through this pre-constructed memory palace, I realized what a fascinating tool this could be for accessing the subconscious and developing a series of poems.

Perhaps this is how Parker began her project wherein she creates a beautifully wrought memory palace into which we are invited to enter. The poems are full of vivid images and the kind of precise and evocative diction that makes me want to reread. I think I’ve read most of these poems 3 times now over the past few months, but two stood out for me: “78 RPM” and “Some Yellow Tulips.” Both poems deal with the subject of memory and the way objects trigger those memories.

“78 RPM” masterfully captures a moment between two young lovers fooling around to the tune of a Billie Holiday record while the speaker’s aunt is outside. Parker captures the heat and intensity of this young lust moment with appropriate tension and sensual elegance:

Heart rising and
Falling like Billie’s
Song, cool water poured

To the top, brimming,
Then spilling silver
Notes, and his lips

On yours for —
The stylus bumps
Its paste-paper

Center; you hear
The screen door’s
Thump against its

Frame, hear Aunt’s
High heels tick
Across the porch.

I found it easy to lose myself in the moment and expected a different response from the aunt than the one Parker shows us. I felt as if the aunt knew what was going on, and understanding the futility of stopping the hormones from a-raging, simply offered iced tea “for this heat.”

If “78 RPM” is a poem about memories of heat, then “Some Yellow Tulips” is about memories of fire. In this powerful piece we find a holocaust survivor tending her garden with a kind of military precision. Parker uses words like ruthless and blitzkrieg to describe Mrs. Sonnenkratz at work in her garden, imposing order on her flowers and the world around her, but despite her best efforts it is only an illusion:

She smokes and shakes and smokes. Each flowerbed’s
As neat as graves. She stubs out ash. The heads

Of these tulips wore bright turbans, tight-wrapped
And now unwrapping. In Berlin, she was slapped:

Sie ist ein Jude… Dry-eyed in Dachau, how
She’s crying over bulbs bloomed too far now.

In a world of absence, presence leaves a scar.
Each tulip’s ravelled to a six-point star.

Despite what I imagine to be a beautiful garden, Parker’s use of words like smoke, graves, and ash suggests someone unable to escape the hellish memory palace that is the holocaust as each flower in her garden triggers these terrible memories despite her best efforts to control and retain them.

The whole poem is about control and our inability to truly control and put away that which we might wish to forget, and I wonder if that is one reason this poem alone is written in metered rhyme.

I suppose as a reviewer I’m supposed to offer some criticism or talk about something I didn’t like in the book, but it was hard to come up with anything. There were a few that didn’t speak to me immediately (“Archaic Fragments” and “Unreal Gardens Without Toads in Them”) but that’s more a matter of my tastes than Parker’s abilities as a poet.

Other highlights include “Breasts” a brilliant meditation on the way the past predicts the future in terms of the speaker’s family history with breast cancer, and “Reading Keats in a Japanese Garden” wherein we see beauty as transitory and almost more beautiful for that.

Good stuff, all around. Now go order yourself a copy because the print version is beautiful (and not transitory) or read it online. Either way, it will be time well spent and you’ll find yourself looking forward to the next time you walk through this particular memory palace.

Here’s the schedule for the rest of the tour:

Feb. 2 — Daniel Romo at Peyote Soliloquies
Feb. 4 — Jill Crammond Wickham at Jillypoet
Feb. 9 — Lawrence Gladeview at Righteous Rightings
Feb. 11 — Sarah J. Sloat at The Rain in My Purse
Feb. 16 — Nathan Landau at Poems About Nothing in Particular
Feb. 18 — Dave Jarecki at Dave Jarecki
Feb. 20 — David Moolten at Edible Detritus


  1. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful review! Or more than a review, really — a full-fledged blog post. That more than anything is what we were hoping for with this virtual tour. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know that a memory palace was more than just a poetic coinage on Parker’s part, so thanks for uncovering all that.

    (Off-topic: I like your riff on “powered by WordPress” there in the footer.)

    • I almost forgot to write the review as I was getting lost in reading about memory palaces. The book was wonderful all around. Glad you liked the review.

      And thanks for the comment about the footer. I forgot I’d stuck that in there when I redesigned the site a little over a year ago. Nice to see some of those little things get noticed from time to time.

  2. Nice research on the title. That adds a lot to the work as a whole.

  3. Thanks, James. You made me forget I was reading a review, which is (in my mind) a mark of a really good one! Like Dave, I’m blushing because I didn’t know the source of the title either. You’ve done us all a favor!

    It’s been fascinating to read which of Pamela’s poems are favored (or not) by different reviewers; “Yellow Tulips” has been a favorite, but was strongly disfavored by one; I liked “78 RPM” a lot and was glad to see that mentioned here.

    • Beth, I’m glad you enjoyed the review. It was fun to write. It was hard to pick just two to focus on. I’m hoping some of the other RWP reviewers will delve into some of the others.

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