Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Memory of Memory: Some Notes on Imagery

Images can be private or public but if they are any good at all, they reveal some underlying nature within us. I remember being nineteen, for instance, and reading Gwendolyn MacEwen’s signature poem “Dark Pines Under Water” and being so taken by its famous imagery evoking the Canadian Shield country of my youth, a terrain of lakes and moraines and wilderness, something I knew intimately from spending my summers in Muskoka.

I’m not sure I really understood the poem as a young man for, truthfully, I think I was much more taken with the speaker’s vatic lyricism, a frustratingly ineluctable quality present in all of MacEwen’s best work, but decades later it seems to me what this poem actually does with great ease is call into question the relationship between poetic imagery and the world at large:

This land like a mirror turns you inward

And you become a forest in a furtive lake;

The dark pines of your mind reach downward,

You dream in the green of your time,

Your memory is a row of sinking pines.

Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for

Although it is good here, and green;

You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,

You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper

And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper

In an elementary world;

There is something down there and you want it told.

Early in the poem MacEwen contends that what we identify as the image in a poem is not merely a mental picture, but something much deeper, more akin to an archetype. It sets up this argument in the first stanza where MacEwen writes “This land like a mirror turns you inward / And you become a forest in a furtive lake; “ which suggest a few possible readings. There are the pines fallen into the water, or if you prefer, the reflections of pines cast upon the water, but then, by extension, there are also the pines we see reflected within our minds which are pure image. A representation of the world outside ourselves.

But unlike mimesis, or mere correspondence, these images are also the essence of what they represent. It is this quality, the idea that images touch upon some special inherited knowledge deep within our minds, that MacEwen interrogates in the poem’s conclusion when she writes ”There is something down there and you want it told.”

Donald Hall basically sets out this case in a brief essay entitled “Notes on the Image: Body and Soul” where he says “’Spirit and image’ meant ‘ soul and body.’ But ‘image’ has come to mean precisely not-body, not-X, because the image is an imitation or a copy of X. From a copy or representation of a thing, the word can then move to mean the essence of a thing; therefore ‘ image’ comes to mean ‘spirit,’ which began by being its opposite”(143).

I suppose this is why imagery is such a tricky thing to talk about since our definitions of what images are and what they do often break down upon closer inspection. Images interject themselves between the world out there and the mind’s capacity to ascertain our experience of that world.

Words may make up the sinews of our language, but imagery is most definitely its spirit.

Perhaps this is why poetic imagery and memory are so closely linked for poets as they both represent a kind of eddying thought, sustaining energy. On the one hand, they describe things and phenomena, i.e. objecthood, but they also mean something beyond themselves—or, at the very least, there is a nagging feeling they do because of their recurrent nature.

Just as memories, the ones we discard and the ones we keep, define our identities--our sense of who we think we are, as friends, lovers, sons, brothers--so do the sundry images that make it into our poems define how those poems look out upon the world.

Despite these trace similarities, imagery and memory are not exactly alike either for there are important distinctions to be made. In an essay called “Image and Emblem”, the American poet Stanley Plumly tasks himself with just such a critical exegesis:

The image, as form and idea, is not interested in the rhetoric of the past or even in the mimesis of memory; it wants to be new knowledge, it wants to penetrate the future—it wants, at the very least, to be the memory of memory. That is why its preferred medium is space rather than time: the whole point of the figure is to try to ascend the limitations of the linear—that unbending line of direct communication with the past—and move into the focus of the singular, kinetic moment when the truth and the shape of truth are all true at once. (214)

I like that phrase ‘the memory of memory’ because it pinpoints for me what imagery is supposed to do in a poem. It reveals something within ourselves, whether that be a special set of associations or correspondences or new knowledge as Plumly suggests, but interestingly enough in the best poems what it reveals changes with each reading. In this respect, I think poetic imagery most resembles archetypes.

This is the reason why when we read a poem about someone’s specific life experiences regardless of the subject matter, if the imagery is doing its job, what we take away from it is a strong feeling that although the images may be startlingly fresh, untried, revivifying, there is conversely something ancient, familiar and recognizable which makes the poem true. In another one of his essays “Autobiography and Archetype”, Stanley Plumly acknowledges this ambiguity when he writes: “Archetype is the machinery through which autobiography achieves something larger than the single life; and autobiography is the means by which archetypes are renewed”(154).

I think this is what MacEwen’s poem “Dark Pines Under Water” is addressing when she places the focus not on her own named experience but that of “the dark pines” appearing in the minds of her readers as they read her poem, leaving them to puzzle out the koan-like last line: “There is something down there and you want it told.”

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