Amnesia by Heather Thomas.
Fray by Barbara Schulman and Heather Thomas.
by Cynthia Hogue
The title of a new collection, Practicing Amnesia, by poet Heather Thomas (who is also a member of the editorial collective for the journal 6ix), fascinates and compels. Why would one practice amnesia. And how? And what does the practicing lead to?
Something, I think, akin to H.D.s blank pages/ of the unwritten volume of the newa personal history that is also a part of cultural history. Patterns of immigration marked by economic and socio-political conditions following World War I. Interrupted and thereafter troubled gender relations that myth suggestslike Isis piecing Osiris together:
Piecing together a past is both taboo and necessary for understanding despite memorys erasure from trauma, hysteria:
It is an act of dreaming and composing the past into words, which at once name and dissolve things and objects, the past and its myths. Rescuing Osiris creates Isiss history, a history marked by her relation to him (sexual myth). It also creates her escape from the heritage of her history, the inherited consequences of trauma, which the act of naming transforms as well as dissolves: after his death there is a new word for water, which is the sound of her own/ desire. This action of piecing-together functions at various literal and metaphoric levels throughout Practicing Amnesia as a trope for both discovery (of the self, of the past) and survival (both physical and psychic): She shall live who is named, as the sequence, Altared Pages, concludes.
One inherits a complex pastjourneys away from loss, the traces of the lost losseswhich this book retraces, re-members, in palimpsestic fragments:
This is a cultural and familial history that practicing amnesia has marked, a distancing technique to survive suffering. As the opening poem, Prelude, puts it, this time only the woman with the shortest memory survives (p.11). How far can we goto access the facts and emotions of past suffering? The woman who has survived by practicing amnesia will dig a hole and plant/ late bloomers with a history, but it is a history we can only invent, we can only open to through language.
Language, without memory, provides a tenuous and shifting ground: version upon version, rather than truth, or even fact (Prelude, p.11). For to name somethingsomeoneis to change everything. It is to discover that if you love metaphor, you love the stand-in, that inevitably, all metaphors fail// the body: the ideal unrepresentable, more beautiful// than the empty page (Fifteen Minutes in a Room w/Kristeva,p.25). But version is also close to vision (though the act of witnessingof re-memberingis often obscured or fraught/frayed into pieces again, as in The Lacemaker). And invention, of course, is the territory of poesis and dream, as well as myth (which gives us structure, the frame of a story when none have been handed down, as in Sonar, or the past is erased except for photographs, as in Skin Memory).
In the final series, Milk Icon, in fact, the emptiness of historys blank page is filled with signs interspersed with family photographs, enacting the piecing-together activity that seams this collection itself together, ending with the poet herself as a child (pp. 60-73). Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography that photographs participate in . . . mutability. . . . [All] photographs testify to times relentless melt. But as Diana Postlethwaite reminds us in a recent Womens Review of Books review essay on Sontag, photographs are also treasured relics, a testimony to the human spirit, that which those who came before us valiantly attempted (see June 2000, p. 5). This tension is one that Thomas explores and extends. The textual spaces between familial photographic icons, which attest to a past though it be fraught with unmemorialized lacunae, and culturally iconic poems, fragmented by what is lost, concretizes the space between memory and forgetting. This is the space where one lives in the present with and with the presence of the past, composing oneself in the sacred act of dreaming, and of making poems.
This collection has, one might say, a poetic texture analogous to that of lacefull of holes: handmade signs of and around (lost) wholes. The fabric of fabrication and lucent invention. The aesthetic textile and texture of the contextualization of memory and decontextualization of forgetting, which together compose the text of ecstatic dictationthat self-beside-herself, the place of representation, embroideries of words: please/ dont ask/ which I, the final poem, Afterword: Wanted, urges. I only want/ to show you/ my text (pp. 75-76)which Thomas extends into her collaborative project with artist Barbara Schulman as well (see The Fray).
BIO: Cynthia Hogue has published three collections of poetry, most recently The Never Wife (Mammoth Press, 1999). She is working on a fourth collection entitled The Incognito Body. She currently lives in Pennsylvania, where she directs the Stadler Center for Poetry and teaches English at Bucknell University.