WE DIDN'T COME HERE FOR THIS:
A MEMOIR IN POETRY
William B. Patrick
That the past has another pattern,
and ceases to be
a mere sequence -
Or even development....
We had the experience but missed
And approach to the meaning
restores the experience
In a different form...
- T. S. Eliot:
"The Dry Salvages"
A memoirist looks to the past with a different motive than one who searches merely for a lost fact or artifact. He or she seeks to discover coherence in all the happenstance, to make, as memoirist Charles Fish has written, "a journey of [his] wanderings." And a poet, by virtue of his special relation to language and all that it carries, is interested in the past not merely as the antecedent of the present, but as its living source. Poets are animists, however much they may see fit to deny it in such a cynical age; they can't help knowing that the world, all of it, lives, breathes, and speaks.
Now the boy does a flip backward
"A Family Picnic on an Island in Lake George, July 1951"
William B. Patrick's We Didn't Come Here for This demonstrates that memory and imagination are inseparable, the systole and diastole of all our knowing. This is not to say merely that things remembered are true and things imagined are not, but that imagination is, and has always been, integral to our grasp of any event, and never more so than in the synesthetic sensorium of childhood.
Patrick seems to be telling us that this yearning and wonder were his even as a two-year old, hearing his dead brother Tommy, "singing under the water," that even then memory and imagination were siblings. But this is only the first of the boy's trips to the past, to the underworld from
which Tommy calls to him:
"On Vacation with Betty's Parents, February, 1953"
Driven by boyhood grief, this memoir enacts the oldest of all poetic quests: to interrogate death and win the release of the beloved. The poet who makes this Orphic journey cannot bring back the dead, of course, though he can speak with them. What the poet brings back instead is an understanding of the subterranean structures of the world, the ways that the past reissues in the present.
Via synchronicity, the associative magic of a child's consciousness, and the deft manipulation of point-of-view, Patrick's dramatic monologues demonstrate the essential truth that their are no lives unmarked by history. War is present in nearly every one of these poems (W.W.II mostly, but it doesn't matter: every true American story takes place either during or in the aftermath of a war) as are its fruits: a debased potential for joy, degraded sexuality, the continual threat of violence, and a learned stoicism. Patrick knows that in countless ways the world we know is a world that was reimagined by our fathers, who were bloodied and forever changed by apocalypse. Here is the beginning of thememoir's opening poem:
JIM AND BETTY IN THE YARD AT WATERFORD, NY, EASTER, 1946
This postwar Easter is the beginning of a new world, not only because Jim and Betty will become the poet's parents, but because we still live in this recreated world - before which it would have been inconceivable to compare clouds to torpedoes or use the word mushroom as a verb. Though Patrick is a poet who can be wonderfully playful and sardonic, his work in this book and elsewhere evinces a do-or-die search for elusive meanings in the past. He understands that Mnemosyne, memory, is the mother of all the muses, and that among her daughters, Clio, history, is his betrothed.
For some years now, Patrick has been quietly turning out an important body of work in both prose and verse, and his preferred instrument is the dramatic monologue. Driven by passionate ethical commitments, he asks the hard questions and gives voice to people who otherwise seldom get to answer. Beginning with Roxa: Voices of the Culver Family, a novel told in many voices, comprised of prose, verse, and news accounts, and which James Dickey regarded as "a daring go-for-broke experiment that succeeds brilliantly," Patrick has consented to be the medium through which history speaks. More recently, These Upraised Hands, which Alice Fulton called "a courageous book of unremitting moral vision," juxtaposed the letters of a slave-trader with monologues descriptive of the scene in J.W. Turner's "Slave Ship" depicting the jettisoning of captured Africans in the face of a typhoon during the Middle Passage:
We will never understand America (and at the end of this "American Century" we need desperately to do so) until we comprehend how each successive generation has been required to bear the weight of our entire history as a people, a history we are encouraged to ignore and enjoined to forget. "That was then; this is now," seems to be our cultural battle-cry, or "Just get on with it!" Because this ignorance of ourselves is both demeaning and demoralizing, we need our best writers to beguile us backward to childhood where we can watch our own consciousness arise from the historical and social circumstances of our births, and beyond that to the lives of our parents and forbears. Make no mistake about it: William B. Patrick is among our best writers.
These days our families seem less storied than merely pictured. (Our children will no doubt have our videotapes copied to some newer medium just as we, many of us, have had our childhood photos placed on cassettes.) Patrick's family photos, included here, are occasions for poems that restore his family's narrative, rescuing history from the disjointed framed moments that have come to replace the intricately braided tales of family lore.
This careful remembering of the dismembered past, anamnesis, is a sustained stance toward the world, an existential commitment as well as a literary, historical, and spiritual undertaking. If forgetfulness, amnesia, is a kind of death, then the reintegration of experience, via memory and imagination, is not only life-affirming for the practitioner, but also confers, in the hands of a skillful artist like Patrick, a kind of immortality on those who would have otherwise disappeared, drowned in the waters of Lethe forever. In the service of memory, poetry becomes what Muriel Rukeyser called, "an approach to the truth of feeling," and truly a labor of love.
We Didn't Come Here for This takes up the memoir's implicit challenge to depict the journey of a soul. Patrick does so with humility and good sense, once again augmenting memory with imagination (and humor, lots of it!) and acknowledging the fact that history exists before we enter it, shapes us, and continues after our demise. In the case of "October 3, 1949, 7:08 A.M." the soul, instead of "trailing clouds of glory.../ from God who is our home," is envisioned in agnostic, postmodern terms no less Wordsworthian for the shift in sensibility:
It is as if, in addition to reclaiming for verse terrain long ago ceded to prose, Patrick insists that the Romantic imagination, for all its bad press, remains equal to the task of making sense of our lives, even in America, even after, or between, wars, but only if it is once again moored to the great mother, Memory, only if we are willing to engage both global and personal griefs.
Patrick ends his memoir with a coming-of-age poem that recounts, among other events, a visit from Jayne Mansfield, that icon of postwar American Triumphalism, to a Cerebral Palsy benefit organized by his parents.
Faced with her vacancy, the boy seems to grasp the real facts of life, so to speak, and he is filled with the kind of fellow-feeling she seems to lack:
The boy whom we have accompanied throughout this book becomes a man in that scene; not only that, he becomes a radical democrat, destined to be a poet in the tradition of Whitman and McGrath, destined - you can almost see the tracks laid down - to be the poet who has given us this masterful memoir. This is a book of clear-eyed compassion, of witness, humor, grace, love, fury, and grief, and one that will be read for many years to come.