Poetry Mixtape 47: Remembering

On Wednesday at 12:12, every seventh grader in my school hooted “WHOO!” in the middle of class, celebrating a moment in time that seemed special because of its numerical anomaly. Who can say why we deem certain moments more important than others? Sometimes our most cherished memories involve places that no longer feature in our daily routines, the simple things we did there. A poem that captures this perfectly is Robert Lowell’s “The Old Flame.” (I figured it was time to give Lowell his due- after all, his correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop inspired my chapbook manuscript that is now a finalist for publication with Tired Hearts Press.)

The Old Flame

My old flame, my wife!
Remember our lists of birds?
One morning last summer, I drove
by our house in Maine. It was still
on top of its hill –

Now a red ear of Indian maize
was splashed on the door.
Old Glory with thirteen stripes
hung on a pole. The clapboard
was old-red schoolhouse red.

Inside, a new landlord,
a new wife, a new broom!
Atlantic seaboard antique shop
pewter and plunder
shone in each room.

A new frontier!
No running next door
now to phone the sheriff
for his taxi to Bath
and the State Liquor Store!

No one saw your ghostly
imaginary lover
stare through the window
and tighten
the scarf at his throat.

Health to the new people,
health to their flag, to their old
restored house on the hill!
Everything had been swept bare,
furnished, garnished and aired.

Everything’s changed for the best –
how quivering and fierce we were,
there snowbound together,
simmering like wasps
in our tent of books!

Poor ghost, old love, speak
with your old voice
of flaming insight
that kept us awake all night.
In one bed and apart,

we heard the plow
groaning up hill –
a red light, then a blue,
as it tossed off the snow
to the side of the road.

*

The specificity of the simple memories -the snow plow’s groan and lights, the lists of birds – plus the addition of the idiosyncrasies of the lovers in that place (the ghost lover, simmering like wasps in a snowbound tent of books!) make the relationship vivid and real. The speaker has no nostalgic longing to have the place back (which so often happens in poems about former homes)- he wishes the new owners well with their new paint job and carefully chosen antiques. But the title and first line show a fondness for the memory of the start of the relationship, perhaps a time when things seemed simple and new. There is a sweetness to the poem that is almost deceptive – Lowell’s mastery of narrative and form both show themselves here. Two end rhymes assert themselves in different lines of each stanza, and the use of rhythmic hard and soft sounds (“Atlantic seaboard antique shop” – brilliant!) is lovely.

If you want to write:

1. Remember a place where you spent an earlier part of your relationship (if you are currently in one. If not, then a part of your childhood.) Imagine revisiting that place now and noticing the changes.

OR

2. Write a poem to an old flame that includes the phrase “simmering like wasps.”

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4 thoughts on “Poetry Mixtape 47: Remembering

  1. Arbor

    The corn husk wreath’s turned tail,
    hiding on the inside of the door
    to bid farewell, not welcome
    her with its twin girl cobs.
    They’ve, no doubt, succumbed
    to dusty mold. He’d correct
    me in the technicality: Smut.
    Pretty soot
    outlining each kernel.

    I’m offered the favorite teal mug,
    as guest.
    She simpers at the tea drawer
    like an antique library catalog,
    the yellowed cards spilling out information,
    curing ills.
    I search behind echinacea (for immunity),
    rooibos (for peace), mugwort (for protection),
    to find a pale blue sleeve: Pregnancy.

    Under the slate roof, the one
    whose November drumming awoke
    in me that torpid pink desire,
    the spinning wheel bears witness
    to ardent witchery.

    Smut ate away at us, like
    mildew blooming over faces
    in photograph albums, a cheek or
    half a leg rotted

    through.

    Remember the arbor with its
    wisteria cloak and redwood rug?
    With our holy, smoking voices
    and stubbed-out love?

    Penned missives secreted in bookshelves,
    stitches in buttonholes, patches of darning.
    Will my kinky hairs be fished out
    from the basin trap? Only my name’s
    hurled across rooms, in lieu of china,
    when they have nothing left to argue over
    but almost-beens.

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