By Christopher David Rosales
“Every work cancels the dark. Every work is a hymn from the other side of memory to a memory that is spellbound.”
― Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions: Volume I
It’s mid April—I hear that’s supposed to be spring—and the snow slants past the glass doors to my balcony where I stand next to camping chairs that sog. I drink my coffee, still groggy enough that as the steam condenses on my brow bunched in earnest, I genuinely wonder how I got transported back. This is winter. With a deadline for a piece of autobiography looming, instead of writing I observe wet streets, snow melting as it lands, the earth as hot-blooded about the unexpected cold as I am. I shake my head, white jelly-fish of light across closed lids, and when I open them the snow’s flakes are still falling. The problem is, while the “graphy” part of my assignment doesn’t intimidate me, the “autobio” part had my teeth chattering before I stepped outside.
I’ve often lamented, only half joking, that I hadn’t been blessed with a worse childhood. If I had, I might have more memorable childhood stories at the ready. But ultimately, that sentiment is too simple a deferral of my emotional struggle with memory. The truth is, when I try to call memories to mind, fear strikes me. Whenever I try to write from my life I have to acknowledge the memories I may lose to forgetfulness, some unintentional, others otherwise. And if I could lose the past, which had once been the present, then I could lose the present, which would inevitably become the past. As the wind sends me back inside to write, the pine trees along the creek shiver loose their shawls of snow.
If I had a diary, I could open it and reclaim moments. I wouldn’t have to try to remember them, they’d be there, on the page. Only problem? I don’t have a diary. Annie Dillard says of writing, “The new place interests you because it is not clear.” This isn’t the way I normally approach memory, as something new. But who’s to say a new place of interest cannot be the past? A memory is no less a story forged by the imagination than fiction. I’ve decided to treat memories, similarly, not as salvage, not in a way which begs more questions than answers. How long can fossils last under the weight of the present? And, once found, how can we trust ourselves to trust their condition? The moment a patch of dirt is cleared from a femoral memory, whatever bone-white remembrance we’ve spotted is clotted over by yet more patches of dirt.
What if, instead of seeing memory as exhumation, we embrace it as creation? The space between two memories contains many more the mind didn’t editorialize for future consumption. Memory, like most things human, has a vocabulary, a language, a lexicon. In Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, she says “One postpartum day it took me forever to remember the word obsolete. Another day, suggestible. Another, fennel. Does the mother of a small infant need a smaller lexicon?” I am in no position to say yes or no, regarding the vocabulary of motherhood. But, the vocabulary of memory? The mother or father of a small memory begins with the smallest lexicon, a wordless vocabulary: an image. If writing is where memory meets the imagination, it’s important to remember the root of imagination: the latin imago (image) or imaginari (to picture to oneself). There’s something helpful here for everyone, with people and projects in mind, in heart, in our bellies. To filter is to focus. Or as Akilah Oliver says, “If we can accept that memory and history are lovers, then we can understand the desire for the bodylife to extend its grasp beyond mediated temporality.” Why deprive the project at hand, the bodylife we birth through writing, the specific vocabulary it desires, the image-as-nutrition it demands? If memory has to live on then, why deprive it of now? There is solace in remembrance as action, of aggression or acceptance, rather than absorption of circumstance — had I only paid more attention when those lips left mine; had I only brought to the child’s toys the serious sense of play she mourned for me. To revisit those moments and write them now, it’s perhaps the only way not to wake up in yesterday’s future grasping dreadfully if dutifully for what’s passed.
I set my coffee down and scribble furiously every image I remember from my childhood. No longer unearthing something buried, but creating something new. The fear is that by attempting to remember, I’d realize the vastness of what I’d forgotten. Not so. Memories are acts of creation and in that way they cannot be lost. The page won’t disappear when we fill its lines, but the self grows more full if we fill our margins.
Christopher David Rosales' fiction has appeared in anthologies, journals, and magazines, in the U.S. and abroad. His novel, Silence the Bird, Silence the Keeper is forthcoming this summer from Mixer Publishing, and in 2009 that novel won the Hispanic Scholarship Fund & McNamara Family Creative Arts Grant. In 2013 Rosales was the Writing Fellow at The National Archives at Philadelphia. Previously he won the Center of the American West's award for fiction three years in a row, and was a finalist for the Faulkner-Wisdom Award. He is a PhD candidate at University of Denver, where he was recently honored with the Doctoral Research Award. Excerpts from his next novel were published by The Denver Poetry Map. Rosales is the Fiction Editor for SpringGun Press.