With a carefully halting structure, this is an elegantly condensed reflection on psychological scarring and healing Analysis:
By Carol Rumens
The Lake of Memories
like broken chairs
in a room.
A room stands
for the ceremony
The self builds
darkness and light
Time winds through
the lake of memories
in frozen tongue.
Howard Altmann’s work may be new to many, so a little biography would not go amiss. The poet and playwright was born and raised in Montreal, but has lived for many years in New York City. His poems are published on the Poetry Foundation website, and in Poetry, The Poetry Review and Academy of American Poets; more are forthcoming in Boulevard, Little Star, Southwest Review and elsewhere. This week’s poem, The Lake of Memories, is from his second collection, In This House, published by Turtle Point Press). He has recently completed a third collection, Notes in the Dark, described by John Ashbery as “a quietly brilliant achievement”.
The “house” in Altmann’s poems is rarely a protected personal enclosure: its doors and windows are open to infiltration by inhuman nature and passing time. It may, as in Night & Day, have more in common with human skin than with bricks and mortar: “A man in a room / is a house in a field.” In the poem Field, an impregnably shuttered building that “has sealed its windows and removed its signs” symbolises religion. Even a day is a kind of building in Gravity: “the day’s architecture collapses” and the poet finds himself “walking over words”. In title poem In This House, the speaker “can hear a home / knocking at a door / left unlocked for years”. The home finds him in an unhomely but welcoming space, “at the top of some ridge /… / with my walls / building solitude out of trees”. That poem, too, features a mysteriously potent, almost decipherable lake, its shimmering surface turned by the wind “into Braille for the half-standing trees”.
The inside-outside fusion explored in The Lake of Memories is made clear by form as well as imagery. The tercets are linked, their stanzaic borders opened by the use of anadiplosis. This kind of daisy-chain technique, linking the last and first lines of each triplet by a repeated word, slows the poem’s forward-impulse to a tentative, step-by-step sort of movement.
“Voices sit / like broken chairs / in a room. // A room stands / for the ceremony of impermanence. // Impermanence cracks / the façade / of self.” Voices that resemble broken chairs are hardly reassuring: they are damaged (by the distortions of time and memory?) and, although they “sit” in the room as if settled and at home, they are not to be relied on. The pairing of solidly end-stopped statements with their uncompromising finite verbs (sit, stand, crack) contrasts with the threat of disintegration. Yet the third stanza already makes a concession: the cracking of the “façade of self” might not be destructive, after all, but the necessary prelude to enhanced consciousness. And so it seems that a new process is initiated and concerns the building of “walls / of healing”. This may primarily be a psychological process, but it also suggests the biochemistry involved in the healing of physical wounds.
The imagery in stanza six suggests that the wounds are historical and their healing long-term. It reminded me of History, a poem nearer the beginning of the collection, in which the speaker recounts: “When he was a young man / at Auschwitz / my father leapt out of line / for a potato / and was saved by a bell / that never rang. / Sixty years later he stands / in his place / by his mother’s tomb – / the only tomb – containing / his hunger for memory.”
While The Lake of Memories can stand by itself, to read the collection chronologically is to sense a reprise of that earlier memory-infused narrative in compressed, symbolic form. The process implied in the last tercet is a strange combination of movement and stasis: “Time winds through / the lake of memories / in frozen tongue.” The phrase “frozen tongue” has many overtones: unsatisfied or thwarted hunger, a language no longer communicative, perhaps no longer spoken, a decision not to speak. There’s a paradox in the idea that such a tongue can “wind through” the lake, somehow alive despite its frozenness. But the future nonetheless seems to have been brought into being by the transformative concept of the wounds forming a bridge.
Wounds heal by a complex, gradual process that includes some connective action not dissimilar to bridge-building. The final scar might be seen as a bridge of regenerated skin cells. Altmann’s poem seems to contain in its slow-paced metaphors the awareness of such a a process.
Poem of the week: Backyard, Hoboken, Summer by Alvin Feinman