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Writing against Loss

Jill Reid

memory This summer, along with a talented poet friend, Rosanne Osborne, I co-led a poetry and faith workshop using Dave Harrity’s book, Making Manifest. The book emphasizes writing as a way of recovering an awareness of ourselves and our Creator by focusing on the significance of single moments, both past and present. The makeup of the workshop was both surprising and just right, made up of multiple generations of women who discovered, through writing, how much more they had in common than any of us initially anticipated. For a month, writers in all stages of life wrestled hard with memory, paying careful attention to what Dave Harrity calls “the disappearing instant,”and living inside the particularity of a moment long enough to locate the images and words capable of capturing the moment’s essence and implications.

Writing about memory can be a tricky thing. “The writer must,”poet Jeanne Murray Walker instructs, “learn how to manage time and manage it well.”For writers, this managing of time is a tall order, particularly when, as busy human beings, we feel much more managed than managing. However, there is reprieve in the world of a well-written poem. That poem has the supernatural ability to stop time, to allow for the kind of reflection that counters the pace of the “real”world.

As challenging as it can be to set up the world of a poem, to find a way into the lyric or the narrative, to decide which lines to cut, to settle on the dominant image that, hopefully, will beautifully marry all the poem’s assorted parts, the poem that delves into memory offers the writer and the reader an opportunity to sit still inside of a single moment, to settle into instances crisp as the day they were happening. The poem offers the writer and reader the chance to recover something that has been lost.

Poet Ruth Stone writes that “memory becomes the exercise against loss.”Stone’s words imply high stakes for the writer who chooses to engage the past.   The struggle of that poet is the struggle to recover and locate someone else’s memory in her own, to be both universal and specific, and to do both in the breadth of a page or two. Those poems are difficult to write and often to read. But those kinds of poems are my favorite ones. Poems that strive to unearth the past push us to be our most human selves, to locate our forgotten persons and moments, to pull them from the margins of the past, and give them space to breathe again. Ultimately, such poems offer us the opportunity to have faith that our participation in this act of recovery truly is an exercise against loss.

(Illustration by Gurbuz Dogan Eksioglu)