Summer Highlights #9: Memory Loss as Wilted Inspiration

by dj boyd

August 24, 2018

Degree Critical, the online publication of the Art Writing MFA program at the School of Visual Arts has been a mainstay of the department since shortly after its inception. As the Art Writing program advances into its second decade, we’re also taking the opportunity to freshen Degree Critical by re-launching it as its own standalone website, so that its relevance becomes more profound than ever. To celebrate this anticipated and exciting new phase of Degree Critical, we are looking back on some of the treasure contained in its vaults. Every Friday throughout the summer, we’ll be re-posting earlier pieces of writing that capture the spirit and essence of the publication. 

“Memory Loss as Wilted Inspiration,” a poetic, playful piece by alum dj boyd (Class of 2017), is about forgetting. First published on Degree Critical in Spring 2017 as a non-traditional book review of Lucy Ives’ collection of poetry, The Hermit (Song Cave, 2016), the piece mimics the familiar, but seemingly irregular way the brain stores—or discards—memories. Ives compiled her words in pieces of evocative, haphazard oddments and boyd takes the reader through Ives’ fragmented thoughts,“gathered like wild mushrooms.” Her reading voice is our guide in the wilderness of murky reminiscence. “Becoming aware of your own forgetting—that can also be a revelation.”
 —Cigdem Asatekin, Managing Editor

“It’s some wish of another I remember. Or don’t remember and continue not to remember. I start to remember and continue not to. No, it’s a dead state.” (She experiences desire.)

—Lucy Ives, The Hermit

Often i have trouble remembering things. Memorizing phone numbers and names is hopeless. My general knowledge of history is appalling. i think: i can’t recall verbatim the last conversation i had, therefore i have failed.

i work myself into a lather imagining that i’m going senile already or that functionally, there’s little difference between senility and a mind that has outsourced its entire ability to remember to computers.

Sometimes, i’ll forget something that amazed me when i first learned about it. Then, learning about it again, i am no less amazed than i was the first time.

When that happens, and then i remember moments later that i’d actually learned this thing once before, i’m not sure what’s more striking: the thing i learned, or that i could ever have forgotten it, or that my forgetting has doubled my pleasure, cloned it and then cleared the way for a repeat injection. (i’d give an example, but i can’t remember now.)

In any case, it’s possible wonder can be enriched, deepened, when it is contingent on your own forgetting. Becoming aware of your own forgetting – that can also be a revelation.

Maybe memory loss is a kind of wilted inspiration.

In Lucy Ives’ The Hermit (The Song Cave, 2016), there are 80 numbered entries, consisting of deadpan quotations, titles of books to read, shriveled lists, aphorisms, literary tweets. Ives, a New York based writer and co-editor at Triple Canopy, explains that they are fragments of texts gleaned from old notebooks and journals that she recognized would never have fit elsewhere as ‘legitimate’ writing, mainly for their smallness. They had to be bundled together, gathered like wild mushrooms. Still, the harvest is lean. An entire page, entry 26, reads: 

 A hut is a small house.

It’s maybe not possible to open the book without the feeling that you’re cracking a text that, if not mummified, seems at the very least smothered, or deposited beneath layers of unbreathing cotton. That’s a credit to the cover, which has been submerged in the sort of blue that, as Goethe suggests, draws us after it rather than advances towards us.

But opening it is not a being-drawn-in so much as a languorous falling. That’s no less palpable given the epigraph from Susan Stewart, which describes the way a particular song’s identity is disclosed to Alice in Through the Looking Glass:

This is the etymological situation of Alice, who learns from the White Knight that the name of a song is called “Haddock’s Eyes,” the name is really “The Aged Aged Man,” the song is called “Ways and Means,” and the song really is “A-Sitting on a Gate.”

Of course, by the time the White Knight begins to recite the poem to Alice, she has heard “a good deal of poetry that day.” Passing our eyes over the tiresome un- and re- naming of the song(‘s names), we become exhausted too, and the book doesn’t even start until the next page. Ives seems tired of poetry. With three books of poetry to her name, she (or at least the narrator) insists: 

I can’t describe myself as a poet. I’m the author of some kind of thinking about writing.

The condition of the writer is a nagging subject of many entries. Neither the condition nor the treatment of it is glamorous. Essay writing is said to occur 

 in dog years, where it isn’t a task of reasoning so much as something that befalls one.

Or later, in an even bleaker diagnosis: 

I discover that writing, as a profession, is about putting oneself into a constrained position, from which there are limited means of escape. The undertaking is not about the words themselves or even some technical skill distinct from survival. One must possess only the ability to tolerate a given position long enough to make it intelligible to others.

This might read as encouragement or ennobling without context, but beside the rest of the numbed entries of the book, we’re given to understand that there’s little to enjoy in a vocation that requires of its practitioner nothing more or less than the patience of an ascetic. “Ability to tolerate” might well be translated here as “inurement to suffering.”

For all this fatigue, both for the reader and the narrator, it felt impossible that these words could be effectively read aloud. These texts seem not only not vocalizations, but even anti-vocal.

The various lists here feature words half-evacuated of meaning and also of their own presence, words that have piled muteness onto themselves like doomed yet industrious beetles. Sometimes this process of effacement is literal, as in her “List for Lorine” where two lines have left words behind altogether:

  1. abstraction
  2. light + shade
  3. italics
  4. serifs
  5. and many times
  6. ‘    ‘   ‘    ‘
  7. I’ve seen it there

Even when people are being quoted, it is not as though they are speaking. The quotes seem so far interred in the narrator’s forgetting that the words cannot reconnect with the voices of their original speakers. Entry 12:

Someone says, “Charm plays a certain role in getting someone to trust you.”

That the “says” is rendered in the present tense rebukes our attempts at comfortably dispensing with the quote as something that had once been spoken in time, but is now past. The utter neutrality of the “someone says” renders the whole page so bloodless and devoid of tone that the content of the aphorism almost vanishes. One does not (indeed cannot) read for meaning here, but rather for the conspicuous grafting of blankness onto words removed from context.

Besides its banality, we struggle to commit this sentence to memory because it didn’t happen that somebody said it. We can’t pin this on the donkey of history, and yet its present tense denotes no presence to speak of that could situate the quote in a tangible ‘now’. Somehow, the tensing denotes the opposite. Like the most depressing water wiggly, you can’t hold on to it, it keeps receding farther into itself (farther from flesh), into writing.


Lucy Ives did a reading of The Hermit one evening in November, at Light Industry.

If i had just met Lucy Ives and she spoke to me in her reading voice, i would have thought, “this person must have been asleep for a very long time.”

If i had not known she was reading from a book, i’d have thought she was suddenly remembering something she herself had said years ago, and was now astonished to be slowly recalling it, each word arriving to her one by one, in front of us all. Or that a voice in her head was telling her to speak these words, words which she did not know, but which comforted her for their familiarity and potency. In her reading voice, these two scenarios become the same thing.

If Lucy Ives’s reading voice were a place, it would be where a thought, climbing the purple hill of forgetfulness, finally comes to the top, only to find their exact clone waiting there expectantly. A few years later, of course, another clone of these two identical thoughts comes trundling up the hill, no less nonplussed to see the two of them waiting at the top. From the hill, there is no view, only fog.

All this to say, it is as if Ives’ reading voice speaks from a senility where bliss and dread, resignation and illumination, cluster.

This said, lyric is absent from both the text and her voice. Though there was a sweetness in the care and slowness of her diction—think of a grade-school teacher reading out of a science textbook to a class. In both a science teacher’s voice and Lucy’s, a certain tone is adopted not to be didactic but to make sure everyone has a reason to follow along what otherwise might be crushingly boring and opaque text. (Ives herself mentioned that she had chosen to read some particularly “boring” parts of the book).

Speaking of boring, much of the reclaimed lagan of this book, like climate-sensitive artifacts, without protection, would have disintegrated under the gaze of a reader for their banality. Which is, perhaps, one practical reason why Ives takes care to enclose these more sensitive entries in rhetorical frames. After the reading, she said she is most comfortable speaking through characters who are “as mediated as possible.”

Hence many of the thoughts here are enmeshed in protective barriers—sometimes mechanisms to distance the narrator from earnestness. Little frames like “a poem:” neatly establish a plausible deniability before presenting verse. A couple entries start with “Fragment:” One reads:

Fragment: “Tries to kill sorrow with vanity”

A lesson, perhaps, in how not to take notes, because in witnessing the gesture of Ives’s retrieval of this lonely fragment, it seems as though any affect that once accompanied this line for the reader who jotted it down, any meaningful thought that had once compelled her to write it down in the first place, is replaced by the note itself. The fragment is a tombstone standing where something living was hoped for.

Through these frames, the texts aren’t being hung neatly on a wall, or pressed through a window to another space, or cosseted in blankets. Instead, these mediating gestures slough the thoughts off into something like a damp hole. Once inside that hole, they thrive like mold: they serve, in human spaces, little ecological purpose but their own propagation. They are meaningless but conspicuous. They make us uneasy to breathe the air for fear of contamination. As in entry 15, which has compelled me to anxiously scrub down my shower curtain like no literature has before:

A phrase recurs: “the triumph of real sympathy”


List of appropriate places to store a copy of The Hermit:

      e.   rotting log with a slot cut to the book’s dimensions, inserted lengthwise
      e.   two dozen clear blue marbles cut in half, each half laid atop the book in a grid
      e.   a book-sized hammock fabricated from discarded beard hairs
      e.   permanently hemmed into the inside of a pin cushion

The Hermit
Lucy Ives
The Song Cave, 2016

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