Reconstructions: The Art of Memory
From Marcel Proust to Oliver Sacks, memory has been both a muse and a source of endless literary and scientific inquiry. Memory serves to define who we are and how we fit ourselves in our world. Yet memory is plagued by emotional biases, biological limitations, societal expectations, and personal ego. Memory is affected by aging and disease, as well as desire and denial.
These stories, essays, and poems from BLR provide a way to discuss and dissect the nature of memory and the way in which our memories affect our lives. This guide also serves as a way for the reader to further examine the implications of style, voice, and content in creative writing. The study guide is useful for teachers, social workers, health care professionals, adult continuing education courses, and general reading groups that want to learn, inform, and teach about aging from a literary standpoint.
Written by Barbara Daddino, Kate Olsson, and Kate Falvey
“Et Tu” by Cambron Henderson
- A short story is by definition a compact literary form. Reread the beginning of “Et Tu.” How much information has the author managed to communicate in only three or four paragraphs about the setting, character and mood of the story?
- Resonance is one of the devices used to deepen the effect of the narrative. How does the author use both figurative language and imagery to achieve resonance? There are some surprising parallels in imagery such as, “the ripeness of her lip” and “the mongrel’s jowl.” Why the juxtaposition?
- Describe Caruthers’ relationship with his family. What sort of professor do you think he might have been?
- How are the depictions of the minor characters handled? Do they serve the story adequately?
- Considering his character, do you feel any empathy for this protagonist? Are you meant to? Why or why not?
- Caruthers remembers women by scent. Why do you suppose the author has not chosen to relate any memory of Caruthers’ wife, by scent or otherwise?
- To what purpose has the author used humor and irony in this story?
- Does Caruthers’ “confession” toward the end of the story strike you as genuine?
- Discuss the title. Has Caruthers gotten his comeuppance, or is that not the issue?
- It’s always fun to talk about epigraphs. What does the author have in mind here? What do you suppose is the author’s opinion of Caruthers?
“Charmed” by Leissa Shahrak
- In “Charmed” a unified effect is set up by creating a tension between two realities: that of the “old” India and that of the “new.” How does the author characterize each India?
- What sensory images has the author used to describe each of the two worlds?
- What is Arun’s place within these two worlds?
- Despite the physical characterization of Arun, what is his inner nature? How has this nature manifested itself in the past? How is his nature consistent in his present actions?
- Initially, the author uses quick, deft strokes to draw portraits of her characters. Look back at the first visual descriptions of Arun, Hamid, the American husband and wife. Discuss to what degree each character is later developed beyond what might be viewed as a stereotype.
- The color white is referred to often. It evokes two opposing sets of qualities. Discuss how and why this is done.
- Arun’s life has not been an easy one. Discuss the challenges he has faced. What resources has Arun drawn upon to meet these challenges? What is Auntie’s role in Arun’s life? How does this character function in the story?
- We learn a lot about the puppet through backstory, and Arun seems convinced of the puppet’s magic. Discuss the role memory plays in the story. What is the puppet’s true magic, especially in terms of memory?
- Arun “wanted to advance.” Contrast the opportunities open to Arun in the new India with the sort of life he lived in the old. Is there a chance of him meeting his goal in either?
- In the final paragraphs, Arun comes out of his room “at dawn… his clothing as pristine white as Nehru’s.” To what purpose has the author returned to white? Contrast and discuss Arun’s inner reality with the exterior world.
“Song of Memory” by Ellen Collins
- This account of what it is like to suffer from Alzheimer’s opens as if with a choir. How is this effect achieved? What feelings does this technique evoke in the reader?
- The first incident described in any detail is that of the dog mistakenly left out in the cold. Other than the length of the description, how does this example of a forgetful incident differ from those related above? In creating this shift, what is the author trying to achieve?
- In the very frightening paragraph that begins, “All things were a portal into fear,” the pronoun “we” is still used, but the story has become a more individual or personal account. How is this possible?
- The word portal at the beginning of one paragraph is followed by the word ocean in the next. What is the effect of using these images? What is the effect of this link?
- The story shifts again and again from a listing of incidents by a “choir” of voices to the personal. What is the author up to?
- Discuss the collage effect of the final paragraph. How is memory held “as tight as the ore deep in rocks”?
“When Her Father Was an Island” by Sara Batkie
- Written from an omniscient point of view, this story alternates between Father’s reality and Maemi’s. Describe each reality as it is drawn at the beginning of the story.
- Maemi’s musings about her father are often described with ghost-like imagery. Trace these images. In what ways are they appropriate to Maemi’s state of mind?
- Father’s memories are in sharp contrast to Maemi’s ghostly images. What qualities characterize Father’s memories?
- Although Maemi lives in the real world, it might be said that as the story progresses, Father’s hallucinatory reality seems the more valid. Do you agree or disagree?
- Contrast Maemi’s response to Father’s absence with Mother’s. To what do you attribute Maemi’s fierce loyalty to Father?
- How are Father and Maemi alike? What attributes do they share?
- Do you think that the declaration of Father’s death gave Maemi permission to get married? Was the news in any way a release?
- Trace the dance between reality and hallucination through the story. Discuss how, by the end of the story, what is real and what is not seem to switch places.
- What effect has the lack of closure had on Maemi’s personality?
“The Trap” by Shawn Campbell
- As the story opens, “Gary sat at the bus top and waited.” For much of the story, Gary’s life seems normal and uneventful. At what point in the story does the sense of normalcy change?
- Relate the shift in tone to the title of the story.
- Compare how the subject of Alzheimer’s is handled in “The Trap” to how it is handled in “Song of Memory.”
- Did each story affect you differently? If so, in what ways?
“Vital Signs” by Stephen Jarrett
- The story opens with a comedic tone. How has the author used diction and imagery to achieve this effect? Which images do you think are the most compelling?
- As it unfolds, the story grows darker. Trace the development of a darker reality.
- Why do you suppose the wry diction is retained even as the tone of the story grows more serious?
- “What I like about Heinrich is that he’s open to the possibility that life might eventually make its decency known.” – Do you agree with the narrator’s assessment of Heinrich? Or do you think he is a “tragedy fetishist”? Why/why not?
- “Watching him – [the ex-Nazi baker] – I there acknowledged denial as the foundation of human existence.” – Can this also be said of the narrator himself?
- The narrator was knocked out in his “farewell exhibition fight” when his son was dying of cancer. What does this anecdote reveal about the narrator’s personality? How does he “fistfight” Heinrich’s grief?
- What purpose does the description of the narrator’s “diligent waxing” serve?
- The second half of the story is sprinkled with animal imagery. Trace these images. How do they lend resonance to the theme?
- The narrator says that he hears “the audible sounds of sorrow,” Moira’s, Heinrich’s, Celeste’s, and his own. Contrast how each (human) character deals with the grief of their impending mortality. How would you characterize the memories of Heinrich and the narrator in terms of guilt, regret, shame?
- In describing the memory of his boxing defeat the narrator says he “can’t help but lament the gracelessness of it all.” Discuss this comment in terms of the present.
“River” by Evelyn Sharenow
- The author has structured the story by continuously weaving past and present. What are the two narrative strands?
- Contrast the imagery used to describe the past with that used to describe the present. To whom do the images of cold and warmth refer? What is the meaning here?
- Laura begins her story with an anecdote that relates “the last peaceful moments” for her. Contrast the way each of her parents reacts to the tragedy of their son’s drowning. How does the change in her parents affect Laura?
- What is the nature of Laura’s relationship with her mother? Along with the fear of “congenital sadness,” what other emotions are at play?
- What are Laura’s feelings toward her father? What do you glean of his character? Is it possible Laura is not giving a full picture of the relationship between her father and mother?
- Besides being a story about a family tragedy, one might also say this is a belated “coming of age” story. How so?
“Still Born” by Heather Wells Peterson
- Kids often dislike people they don’t understand. How does the narrator, Mac, describe Bugby? What makes Bugby seem suspicious?
- Gender-identity plays a key role in the relationship between Mac and Streeter. Describe Mac’s mixed feelings. What attracts Mac to Streeter? What needs does Streeter fill? Why does Mac resent Streeter?
- “The other houses were lit up, people inside, moving around. Each felt like it was alive, like a heart was beating inside of it. Except mine.” How does Mac navigate the torpor of his home life? Is he in any way successful?
- Mac says his house feels like a “time-capsule”. How are Mac’s mother and Bugby alike? How does each deal with the losses they have suffered? How does imagery highlight this similarity?
- Trace the motif of inertia as it relates to the narrator. Discuss how his paralysis stems from different and possibly more complex sources than those of his mother.
- “A stillborn baby. I had always thought of this as meaning the baby was born without the ability to move. I had never thought of it the other way, that the baby was dead, and yet still born. This poor woman had given birth to a dead thing.” How does the term stillborn relate to the way Mac sees himself? How might he apply the term to the human condition?
- Trace the various emotions Mac feels towards Bugby from the time the narrator first introduces the veiny-eyed Bugby, through Bugby’s attempted visit to Mac’s mom, and on to Mac’s discovery of Bugby’s past. How do these changes prepare Mac for his epiphany?
“Kickback” by Carolyn Thorman
- As the story opens, we immediately come to know almost all we need to about Anna’s dismal reality. How does the author set up the details about Anna’s situation as well as the central conflict so efficiently?
- What sort of person is Tony?
- Contrast Tony’s “semi-wide” with Byrne’s house. What does this tell you about each?
- “I’m working for America, same as Tony with that Eye-racki wall,” says Byrne. Is there a connection?
- What do you think of Anna’s solution? Is it workable? Ethical? Would you have made the same choice?
“Explain” by Anne Colwell
- A great many short stories are written in first person. What is unique about this first-person narration? How does this style or technique affect the reader? Why is it especially apt for this story?
- It might be said of the narrator that her greatest strength is her greatest weakness. What sort of person is she? What qualities make her particularly suited to her job? How do these traits work against her?
- “…today it felt like one impossible mess after another, like the whole world was a mess and nothing would ever be fixed or happy or whole again.” What has made the narrator especially vulnerable? Describe the constellation of emotions she is feeling with regard to her situation.
- In what way is the narrator “trapped” in her “head”? What forces are feeding off each other on this day? How does memory play a role?
“Tattoo” by R.L. Maizes
- The story opens in an ordinary manner, however it is soon evident that events will take an extraordinary turn. What is the first hint that this is a story of magical realism?
- Describe Trey physically. How does his appearance effect his demeanor?
- How does Trey’s demeanor change as the story progresses?
- Both Nava and Alisande encourage Trey. How does their support differ?
- What is Trey’s relationship to Nava? What role does she play in his life? How does their relationship change, if at all, as the story progresses?
- As his career develops, so does Trey’s self-image change. What is Trey’s new sense of himself? How does success change his values?
- Trey’s long-term relationship with Melonie plays a pivotal role. How does this relationship work to bring Trey to a more valid aesthetic?
“The Library of Forgetting” by Francine Prose
- Francine Prose opens her essay by comparing her collection of books to the collections of hoarders, individuals who are often perceived as crazy. What is the purpose of this comparison if Prose defends her book-hoarding and considers it a positive trait?
- Prose spends a good portion of the short essay describing the inside of her home and the book sorting system she employs there. Discuss the reasoning behind Prose’s choice to include these physical and spatial details in a piece about memory.
- The essay concludes with the assertion that books exist more or less as a safeguard for humankind’s faulty memories. Discuss the ways in which books accomplish this task better or differently than other forms of art, such as films, television shows, fine arts, or photography.
“Good Measure” by Pamela Schmid
- Though this story is about the author’s loss of her sister, half of the piece takes place before her sister’s death. Why did the author make this choice, and what is its effect on the tone of the piece as a whole?
- Characterization is when an author indirectly provides information about her characters through their actions and speech. How does this piece characterize the author’s sister Patti, particularly though her interactions with her sister and their setting?
- This piece is critical of the accuracy of memory, especially when memories are no longer shared by more than one person. Discuss the contradiction of a nonfiction narrative, which is essentially a series of memories written down, that acknowledges the ways in which memories become distorted and dull over time.
- The title of the summer camp song “Obalaba Koobalaba” and its lyrics are the most repeated ideas in this piece. What is their role in the author’s life? Why are such humorous, made-up words featured so prominently in this story of loss and grief?
- The author of this piece chooses to skip over her sister’s entire illness, jumping in time from before she was aware of it, to weeks after her sister’s death. Discuss the effect this has on the mood of the piece.
- In two separate spots in this piece, the author jumps two decades ahead in time, covering a span of around forty years in all. Discuss how she is able to do this without confusing the reader or disrupting the flow of the piece. Discuss the effect this passage of time has on the narrative overall.
“As High” by Toni Mirosevich
- The author of this piece has a way of abruptly changing subjects, though she eventually works her way back to her initial idea. How does she achieve this, and what it this technique’s effect on the piece as a whole?
- Kite Man, a central figure in this narrative, does not appear until halfway through the piece. Discuss the way in which he is introduced, and how the author manages to imbue his character with so much meaning in just a few pages.
- The scene in the optometrist’s office is one of the only scenes that isn’t clearly connected to the other scenes in the piece. Why did the author choose to include this scene in this narrative? What is its significance?
- What is the author’s relationship to the Kite Man? Based on the flashback to kite-making with her father as a child that interrupts the Kite Man’s scenes, describe the sense of kinship the author imagines she has with the Kite Man.
- Discuss the significance of the man on his knees. Why does the story begin and end with him in the garden? Why is he so often on the author’s mind throughout the piece?
- The author of this piece imagines that reading a narrative essentially brings to life the characters for the duration of the story; they exist even when she has taken a break from reading, growing especially angry if they are left stuck in an undesirable place in the story’s arc. Did the author design her own narrative with this in mind? Discuss how the structure of this piece might serve the characters within it.
“Noise” by Peter Selgin
- This piece begins and ends in the present tense, bookending the action of the story, all which takes place many years in the past. Discuss why the author chose to frame the story in this way, rather than beginning and ending with his relationship with Lenny.
- The author defines noise as “sound where you don’t want it.” Do you agree with this definition? Discuss how the rest of the narrative either does or does not support the author’s initial definition.
- The author shies from including very many personal details about himself or his marriage during the time he lived at 94th and Columbus, choosing instead to focus on the intricacies of Lenny’s life, apartment, and family. Why is this? What do the details the author chooses to include about Lenny reveal about himself and his own life?
- Lenny loves music, art, and movies, while his mother loves God. Discuss the relationship between these characters and the things they love. Do they use these things to serve the same purpose? If so, what is that purpose?
- The author leaves Lenny’s fate ambiguous; he disappears just as suddenly as he arrives. Discuss what, as readers, this seems to say about the author’s relationship with Lenny. What does Lenny symbolize to the author?
- At the hospital, Lenny’s psychiatrist refuses to speak to Lenny’s mother, which upsets her. This is one of the only moments in the story during which a person is upset by silence. Discuss why the author chose to include this detail that so starkly contrasts with his own attitudes regarding silence and noise.
“The Nature of Memory” by Nicholas Samaras
- How is “yearning” integral to the poet’s dynamic concept of memory?
- What does the poet mean by: “Every moment, we can/choose our natures…”?
- The poem suggests that the way we remember is a choice. Discuss the significance of this attitude toward memory, self-awareness, and self-development.
- How, according to the poem, are acts of remembrance also acts of self-definition?
“Accounting” by Deborah Golub
- Discuss how the era being recalled in this poem deepens and complicates the theme of women’s roles and power.
- Describe the speaker’s voice and her attitude toward her girlhood experiences.
- What is the speaker referring to when she says “and it feels sad to say it now”?
- Discuss how the poem is an account of an “accounting” in which the speaker tallies up losses and takes youth, the times, female friendship, and sexual experimentation into account.
- How is the idea of an “account” used symbolically in this poem?
- What does the speaker mean when she says, “How much is lost when we add/things up?”
“Revision” by Jennifer Molnar
- How does the poem’s title reflect its meaning?
- What is the effect of the poet’s repetition of “I want to say” and “perhaps”?
- How does the prose poem form help create tone and meaning?
- Describe how imagery (maps, nature) is used in this poem.
“Hau Hau!” by Thomas R. Moore
- The poem develops through a series of contrasts: tourist/native; youth/age; king’s son/speaker’s son; memory/present day. How do these contrasts work together to create tone and meaning?
- What is the tapa cloth’s original purpose? How is this cloth used symbolically in the poem? The poet writes, “This / poem is a tapa for my son.” How does the poem become a tapa cloth?
“Baptism” by Michele Bombardier
- What is the significance of the title?
- How are images of water and drowning used in the poem?
- Describe the narrative voice. Who is narrating this poem? What is the speaker’s response to the patient?
- What is the effect of the lines beginning with “Nevermind”?
“The Last Itinerant Rabbi” by Ken Victor
- How is Bennie characterized in this poetic story? What sort of boy was he and what sort of man did he become? How might the violent encounter with the itinerant rabbi have influenced his future as a strike-breaker?
- The poem is set in Minnesota’s Iron Ranges in the early 1900s and depicts a little known aspect of Jewish immigration and settlement. Do some background research in order to contextualize the poem and Bennie’s particular story.
“My Mother is a Fish” by Kailey Tedesco
- The interwoven repeating lines of this poem (called a pantoum) create a delicate pattern of emphasis and meaning. Discuss how the form of the poem suggests a child’s memories of maternal presence.
- How are images of water used in this poem? How do these images accumulate and flow into one another?
- The poem’s impressionistic drift includes the repeated line: “the black mud of our flooded cellars.” How does this line introduce a note of tension or menace?
“The Last Thanksgiving” by Constance Alexander
- The narrative is revealed in brief glimpses, couplet by couplet, until it is clear that the husband with the gun has dementia. How does this method of narration contribute to the power and poignancy of the story?
- How does the missing punctuation (“of a gun she remembers”) in the second line create a sense of urgency and confusion?
- What is the significance of the title? Why does the poem end with the image of the husband weeping?
- What details are given to characterize the history of this marriage?
“The Castle” by Rebecca Ellis
- How is the dream version of the memory different from the memory itself?
- How has memory “rounded” the sharp edges of recognizable structures like doorways and windows?
- What does the dream’s absence of even the “round” impressions of concrete markers suggest about emotional memory?
“pamphlet_16_253057_HIV_and_Cerebral.Hypoxia_Factsheet-HIV_STD” by Noah Stetzer
- How does the title help contextualize and illuminate the poem’s meaning?
- How are the images of the jar and the sunlight used symbolically in this poem?
- How is the orderly “silent astonishing math” in the first stanza contrasted with the ironic “answer to forgetting” in the second stanza?
“The Red Thread” by Michael Chin
- How is the idea of the red thread emphasized in the structure of this poem?
- The poem is developed through a series of associations with the color red. Trace the way red is focused on in each stanza and how the stanzas are “threaded” together, moving from the ancestral to the personal.
- Consider how the questions in the final stanza connect to the opening stanza’s explanation of the traditional meaning of the red thread.
“Almost” by Laura Foley
- Characterize the tone of this poem. What images are used to set the scene and create atmosphere.
- How is tension between fulfillment and disappointment created in this poem? How does the limited narrative clarity help create this tension by “almost” revealing a family portrait.
- Discuss the meaning of “almost” in this poem.
“Breaking the Fever” by Robert Carr
- Each tercet (a three line stanza) reveals a different image of illness. How do these images evoke a loving relationship?
- To what effect does the poet use images of roundness or bulging in each stanza?
“Fear of Intimacy” by Andres Cerpa
- “Fear of intimacy” can mean fear from having been intimate as well as fear of becoming intimate. How do these twin fears manifest in the poem?
- The poet uses a compelling image of a “wheel” in the eighth stanza. Discuss the thematic aptness of this image. How does this image connect to the image of the “vinyl’s skip” in the sixth stanza?
“Needle” by Landon Godfrey
- In this prose poem, a newly recruited needle is addressed by “an agent from the Bureau of Pain” and given two troubling choices. What are these choices and what do they say about human suffering?
- What is meant by the word “crux” in the penultimate line?
- How does the lightness of the final line contrast with the grimness of the earlier images? How does this line and the use of a needle as a character complicate the perspective offered in the poem?
“Infanta” by Ricardo Pau-Llosa
- Velazquez’s painting, Las Meninas, famously plays with perspective. This ekphrastic poem (a poem about or inspired by a work of art) interprets the painting as a precursor to the “snapshot.” What is suggested about perspective, about “dimensionality,” about time in this poet’s response to Las Meninas?
- Do some background research on this painting in order to contextualize the poet’s response to it. Analyze the poem after studying an image of the painting.
- The painting has come to be called “Las Meninas,” after the ladies in waiting who attend to the five-year-old Infanta Margarita Teresa of Spain, yet the poem is titled “Infanta.” How does the emphasis on the Infanta connect to the line: “Innocence is the playful infinite – the artist’s and child’s/luxury…”?
“Cancer” by Mia Herman
- How does the poet’s use of simple lines and clichés build to ironic and solemn effect?
- Discuss the theme of illness and identity in this poem. Analyze the multiple meanings of “masses” in relation to this theme.
“Touching a Man” by Michael Mark
- This prose poem depicts a private encounter between a hospice worker and a dying patient. What is the effect of such a graphic description of the patient’s body?
- What details of background and setting help define the characters of the speaker and the dying man?
- How is this poem about a remarkable kind of empathy and intimacy?
“Driving Home” by Wendy Wisner
- What images are used to convey initial menace and then freedom?
- In the final lines, the speaker carries the wet weather into the house. What does this suggest about the speaker’s relationship to home and children?
“Elegy Without Stopping” by Billy Reynolds
- This poem is a modern interpretation of an ancient Middle Eastern form called the ghazal. Ghazals are traditionally associated with themes of love, desire, loss, and sorrow. The poem is also, as the title makes plain, an elegy, a lament for the dead. Explain how this poem reflects these traditional themes.
- Discuss the concepts of time and dream in this poem.
“The Orthotist” by Conor Burke
- This poem, written in tercets (a three line stanza) with a final couplet (a two line stanza), tells a story of an orthotist and his patient. How does the poet describe the orthotist? How does the orthotist treat the child?
- What is the child’s response to the orthotist?
- How do the balloons with their “incarnadine translucence” suggest the reshaping of the girl’s legs?
- How do the long lines and the regular stanza forms suggest the work of the orthotist?
“Dentata” by Natalie Homer
- The poem is structured with tercets until the italicized line, “Once the enamel is gone, you’ll never get it back.” What is the effect of this this structural change?
- There is a sense of ominousness conveyed in the poem, seemingly at odds with the ostensibly benign situation. How does the poet convey a sense of threat? What seems ambiguous about this visit to the dentist?
“Cento: Our House, Its Pillars a Dim Basement of Men” by Stephanie Rogers and Arianna-Sophia Kartsonis
- A cento is a poem made up of lines culled from other poets’ poems. Sometimes called a collage poem, the form is particularly compelling when the assemblage has been made through collaboration. Discuss how the collaborative process expands the effect of this cento.
- Discuss the cento form itself as a means of expressing homage to other poets and as a method of creating meaning out of “found” lines.
- What sort of impressionistic meaning is created through the assembling of these chosen lines?