Cynthia HoguePracticing Amnesia by Heather Thomas.
Philadelphia: Singing Horse Press, 2000, 76 pp., paper.

The Fray by Barbara Schulman and Heather Thomas.
Kutztown, PA.: Kutztown Publishing Co., 2000 9 pp., paper.

                 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 new”—a 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 suggests—like Isis piecing Osiris together:


[section]3: Spirits are heedless, called in another name:

           Drifting to shore, a past all taboo. Bodies of cats. Crocodile
Reverie the solitude for composing.

           He comes in pieces of sexual myth. She gathers them into the
Boat, words that transform the thing and dissolve

           With every name.  His rescue creates her history, then her

                                      (“Altared Pages,” p.39)

Piecing together a past is both taboo and necessary for understanding despite memory’s erasure from “trauma, hysteria”:


labial memory
for the pre-morbid period

affected in a lawful way

from chronic drinking, head injury,
smoking, electroconvulsive

                    though not confused

globally unable to
acquire the new, the old in tact

                      after head trauma
                      you are left with lacuna

but islands do emerge
exacting and suffering revenge [.]

                    (“Birthplace,” p.23)

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 Isis’s 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 past—journeys away from loss, the traces of the lost losses—which this book retraces, re-members, in palimpsestic fragments:


History marked by the practice of amnesia,
the casualties of last month
distant as those dead twenty years

open to each trace, flash of limits

the sacred activity of dreaming

                   (“Withholding Angel,” p.15)

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 go—to 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 something—someone—is 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 witnessing—of re-membering—is 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 history’s 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 time’s relentless melt.” But as Diana Postlethwaite reminds us in a recent Women’s 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 lace—full 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 dictation”—that self-beside-herself, the place of representation, embroideries of words: “please/ don’t 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.



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