Not Yet Untangled: On Memory, Writing, and the Elegiac Impulse

Photograph by Kathryn Alvarado

Of all my dead it’s you 
who come to me unfinished 

 —Adrienne Rich

* * *

When I was sixteen, a boy I knew was killed in a car accident. The car he was riding in flipped. It was a rainy, summer night. One moment he was there, on the phone, saying he was on his way to meet us at the pizza parlor, and the next moment he was gone. In one way or another, I have been writing ever since. It’s not true to say I wasn’t writing before my friend died; I was. But his death altered my writing. It changed my writing’s purpose. 

* * *

Among my friends, it is popular to discuss art making. What is art? we might ask one another, over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Why must we continue making these paintings, poems, and songs? Why can’t we have a hobby like everyone else, and get a real job?

Perhaps it was after my friend died that my writing became a kind of job. In the sort of fevered panic that follows an unexpected death, I attempted to render him in the only fixed medium in which I could work — the page. First, I wrote fiction. It was mostly nonfiction, to tell the truth, but in those days nonfiction didn’t have “creative” attached to it, and I thought my only choice was to make a character out of him. If I did, he would continue to live, I thought, in the stories. So I turned in draft after draft to my high school English teacher. I wrote versions in my journal that I never showed to anyone. I also wrote poems, fragments, lyrics. I kept writing and writing, recalling tiny details that I had previously missed. I was working against the clock, I thought, against the cold, forward march of life. His eyes were green and narrow under sandy brows. The radio in his father’s pickup truck was green too — it glowed in the dark of the last evening we spent together. 

Or did it? 

In my writing about my friend, I embellished certain details. I filled in the holes. And as a result, if I’m honest, I’m not sure which parts of the story are true, as in truly happened, and which parts I’ve added, piece by piece, over the years. Was it my need to remember that built this parallel between his eyes and the radio? Did we really smoke pot on a park bench, en plein air, as I’ve so often recalled, or was it cigarettes? Did he hold my hand during the movie we watched together, or did I dream that, too?

* * *

Of course, in the almost twenty-three years since my friend’s death, I’ve grieved other losses. But this is the one I return to again and again. The one I poke and prod and write and rewrite. Why?

* * *

A few months after I turned in those drafts to my high school English teacher, he gave me a copy of Letters to a Young Poet. I liked the title, but mostly I liked that he thought enough of my writing to think I would be interested in such a book. I never did read it, though. I picked up a copy of Rilke’s selected poems instead, the Stephen Mitchell translation with the original German facing each page like a mirror. I read these lines from the first of the Duino Elegies

In the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us:
they are weaned from earth’s sorrows and joys, as gently as children
outgrow the soft breasts of their mothers. But we, who do need
such great mysteries, we for whom grief is so often
the source of our spirit’s growth — could we exist without them

Maybe my friend no longer needed me, but I could not exist without my friend. So I wrote about him. In my old, heavily underlined copy of that Rilke collection, at the bottom of that page of the Duino Elegies, I see in pencil, in my handwriting, my dead friend’s nickname — Mattylove — and the date 8/11/92. He had died twelve days earlier, and it appears as though I went to the poems to mark the event, to mark the loss, the grief. Just as I do again now.

I wanted so badly to remember. 

* * *

In an essay called “Stars and Moons and Comets,” from the December 2014 issue of The Sun, writer Beth Alvarado asks what it means to let someone go. She writes, 

On a Sunday night in January 2013, around 2 AM, my husband said, “Beth, you have to let me go.” 

And I said “I love you, Fernando, but I let you go.” 

I said it clearly in a loud voice, because I thought he might die that very moment, and I wanted our children to hear so they would come into the room and be with him. . . . Both children came into our bedroom and said, “Dad, we let you go.” 

Or maybe they didn’t come in. Maybe it was the next night, when he actually died, that they told him, “We let you go.” I can’t be sure.

Maybe it was Camel Lights that Mattylove and I were smoking. Maybe his eyes were blue, instead of green. Here, Alvarado’s narrator opens the window on not only the process of grief, but also the process of recording those last fraught moments with the beloved.  “Fernando was only sixty,” she writes. “He was going on without me, and I wasn’t ready.” Fernando, Mattylove — “those who are carried off early.” And what can we do about it, but write? 

I return to the slick streets of that summer night, and Alvarado wonders about the timeline. I wring my hands over the color of his eyes, details of his sneakers (were they Adidas or Puma?) Alvarado talks to a friend who has also lost a husband. Her friend is grateful to have had time enough to say what needed to be said. “I wondered if [Fernando] and I had talked about everything,” she writes. “Sometimes I’d thought I just knew what he wanted, but what if I’d been wrong. This worried me, now that I couldn’t ask him…. I said [to my friend], ‘I feel like we are not yet untangled.’”

* * *

We are not yet untangled. We are, instead, locked in a lifetime of untangling and re-tangling. Of riding neural pathways like ribbons of freeway. Of returning to the mysterious hippocampus for just one more memory, one more detail for that poem, that essay, that short story. Another chance to reanimate, to resurrect. 

* * *

In a speech she gave at The Rothko Chapel here in Houston where I live, the actress Tilda Swinton said, “I believe . . . art holds the power to dissolve things.” This is what I am counting on; that what I write dissolves the time between now and then, the distance between him and me, between you and me. “I believe . . . art holds the power to mend things: [to] reconcile us to our selves.” We are writing our way back to our beloved, and in doing so we are writing our way back to ourselves. 

I remain tangled in my memories. And I am content to remain so. To return again and again, year after year, to that park bench, to that summer night, to the eyes, the sneakers. Like an amnesiac, trying to get it right.

Cameron Dezen Hammon is an MFA candidate at Seattle Pacific University. Her work has appeared in Gigantic Sequins, Role/Reboot, Columbia Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Follow her @camerondhammon.

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