A Walk Through the Memory Palace
Pamela Johnson Parker is an adjunct professor of composition and creative writing and a medical language specialist in Western Kentucky. Her poems, flash fiction and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Binnacle, The Other Journal, New Madrid, Pebble Lake Review, Holly Rose Review, Six Sentences, MiPOesias, Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal and Anti-. A Walk Through Memory Palace, published by Qarrtsiluni literary magazine as the winner of its 2009 poetry chapbook contest is Parker’s first chapbook or book-length publication, perfect bound with a glossy cover and surreal art by Carrie Ann Baade.
The chapbook title alludes to a mnemonic device developed in antiquity in which the user associates fragments of oratory or other text with physical locations in an effort to facilitate memorization. The locations considered together form a “memory palace,” derived from Cicero’s story of Simonides, who escaped the gods’ destruction of a banquet hall, and used his recollection of the guests’ seating to identify the dead.
Consisting of ten poems, several of which are longer pieces, the book ranges far in its psychological and narrative geography, while keeping its temporal focus on the past. In terms of mood, A Walk Through the Memory Palace relies on intimate rather than objective reporting. So the title feels apt with respect to the poems, providing them a framework where their own interrelationship is less important than diverse connection with the poet as source.
This said, there is a strand of the bucolic, of the country house whose garden offers paths to a nearby pond, which threads a number of the pieces together. In addition, the poems’ inhabitants and their surroundings tend to be viewed from portrait distance, and the language is well crafted and delicately informed. Parker’s verse finds its power in gentle irony, quiet onomatopoeia and a lush though domestic lexicon. The evident structure makes the most of a refined music, primarily brief stanzas and short lines consistent in syllable count, sometimes more formal with respect to meter or rhyme.
The first piece in the book, 78 RPM, demonstrates Parker’s skill at distilling felicity from nostalgia. Here the second person perspective and a hint at the autobiographical, or at least directly witnessed, allow a sensuous return to the adrenaline and pheromones of adolescence. The language is a filigree of the precisely observed, a snapshot packed with dynamic tension.
As the heavy arm angles
From left to right, as
The stylus traces
Its sapphire finger
Down the record’s groove,
As he skates a single
Finger along the sun-
Bleached down of your
Arm, and as you
Start to shake,
Heart rising and
Falling like Billie’s
Song, cool water poured
To the top, brimming,
Similarly, in Tattoos, a poem consisting of two parts, the language is a smorgasbord of the exotic, the colorful, and the intricate. The first part focuses on the materials that compose tattoo ink—
Aisles of densities, textures:
dry dun-colored globes,
the testes of arctic
seals; cicada skins, fingers
of ginseng. Silver
Assam teas, great sacks
of rice, geese screeching from crates.
but ultimately furnishes a male protagonist to give the language an erotic gradient and intensity,
“Good for the kidneys,”
says the clerk — young, stripped
to the waist, a great dragon’s
body rippling across
his back, undulant
as he turns, wrapping spices,
plum wine, packages
in brown kraft
The second part zeroes in on the metaphor of the flesh as canvas for the indelible ink of experience, boosting the erotic mercury level even higher:
I want you
so much it hurts to
breathe, want your voice, telling
me about anchors, hearts, names
(either regional or
needles; about inks
of cinnabar, navy, that
black; about the tattoo
of skin against skin, that
Breasts, the final poem in the collection, taps into Parker’s other textual expertise as a medical writer, effectively animating the sterile jargon of anatomy and frozen sections by juxtaposing it with a breast cancer patient’s living narrative. What’s remarkable here is the poet’s emphasis on inspection—visual findings being a key part of diagnosis and medical management. Parker presents multiple perspectives—that of the woman examining her normal breast, that of a clinically “objective” observer, that of the patient status post mastectomy, that of the pathologist, that of the poet, and that of the poet as affected witness, relative of the afflicted. The effect, given Parker’s magnifying powers of observation, is striking.
Interrupted silk. The scar
From shoulder to her
Xiphisternum. Zipper, zipper.
Something’s wrong with this
White leather, this
Epidermis sliced and scraped
And stitched — no nipple,
No tissue, no muscle,
Some Yellow Tulips, the one poem in the collection I found unsuccessful, suffered because its subject, the Holocaust, is less easily penetrated by Parker’s intimate tropes. Genocide brutally resists understanding and even if the survivor-protagonist of the poem stoops to the familiar task of raising tulips, she is not of their world. Parker relies on aesthetically satisfying comparisons to speak for themselves, and they cannot:
Today, her turban slants
Askew over her blue-rinsed hair; her plants,
Once straight as soldiers on her patio,
Are blitzkrieged out of order, the yellow
Tulips (three days blossoming in a vase
Atop her wrought-iron table) don’t erase
Her frown, her sloppy slippers, or the brown
Age spots (about the size of dimes around)
She often hides with gloves.
Parker also asks the stark rigidity of rhymed couplets to supplement the survivor’s concept of order as a source of security. But this is more earnest than ironic, and misses the mark. The Holocaust is the ultimate corruption of order. It is Nazi discipline. It is dirt. It is bits of bone and ash, not the flowers that grow from them. The poem does glance against a worthy truth: that the present has its own order against which survival can seem a disturbance, a scar, like the tattooed numbers on an old woman’s arm. But this revelation appears only as a resolving coda. Ultimately, it is Mrs. Sonnenkrantz herself who represents the terrible blossoming. Perhaps she deserves a more harrowing exploration, which in the end must undermine beauty.
However, if Some Yellow Tulips misfires aesthetically, it does so like a dark bulb in a string of outdoor lights, letting the rest shine, their circuit still intact. Parker has a wonderful palette of language, and good instincts for the memorable. A Walk Through the Memory Palace richly demonstrates both.