With the Memory, Which is Enormous by Tony Trigilio
With the Memory, Which is Enormous
I trust a narrator who tells me up front where he's coming from, and Tony Trigilio's narrator in With the Memory, Which is Enormous begins with the poem "Erie, PA, 1975." It's hard to be more specific than that. Dear Reader, I am in Pittsburgh Steelers country, where the working class is, where the high school principals you hate become mayors, where the pledge of allegiance you recite every morning turns into a joke, where
You learn Steelers players' names
whether or not you want--
Mean Joe Green, Rocky Bleier,
even Frenchy Fuqua.
Right away, those first four lines of the chapbook establish how the places we live get in us without our permission. They provide a wonderful context for subsequent poems that relate the same sense about how life, death, culture and illness all impose upon us and how we must participate whether we like it or not.
We hear this another way in "Get There at 10:00 So You Won't Have to Stay for Lunch," in which the narrator employs a strategy to cut short a visit with a sick relative. He writes, "There's nothing to say but we keep talking." This poem, like many of the others, successfully describes how we attempt to navigate the terrain of what is forced upon us. There is uneven, bumpy space between facing serious, morbid matters -- "There's nothing the doctor can do but make you comfortable enough to ask yourself what's next" -- while at the same time keeping the crises themselves in the periphery. What shows most prominently to us are ordinary activities -- "people are alive and smoldering and glad to wave their arms at the television when they talk" -- and memories of ordinary activities -- "all the beer we drank."
What develops, of course, as we try to fill up that between space, are conflicts with ourselves, confusing emotions and awkward connections. For example, the narrator of "Dougie's Sister Exposes Herself" connects the memory of Dougie's dog dying with the image of Dougie's sister "in nothing but her boyfriend's work shirt" which "rose and revealed everything." Because the truth is we're all this clumsy, we believe the narrator's impulses and recognize the same odd couplings in ourselves.
For this reason, we stick with the narrator in "Aviary," when he takes us on the following journey: from a pigeon in the living room near a baby to a wish that he could love the bird, from a confession that he fears the bird’s diseases to exposure of his insecurities about hospitals. We are right there with him when he sees his brother in that bed and doesn't know what to say about the discomfort that connects them:
a fear of staph last time I saw
my brother, an IV engraved
in his arm, oxygen tube
up his nose,
as we scanned each other
for forgiveness: beatings I took
as the youngest, the yellow
thrall of my privilege.
Our last joke, his dream
our mother came back ...
The brother's illness factors into a few other poems, as well, as does the remembrance of a mother who has died. In each instance, we are shown how uncomfortable we feel as we try, quite simply, to do what we have to do. When a narrator is honest about the clumsiness this inspires, he is able to portray the strange, jerky movement of our lives, the way we lurch forward or tumble back, never able to trust fully the trajectory of any plot.
It's interesting, of course, in a book that makes us feel sure of physical surroundings in so many poems and convinces us initially that this might be a book about coping with death that we also grasp how quickly everything falls away and transports us somewhere else entirely. The chapbook With the Memory, Which is Enormous has its share of surreal and dream imagery. There is a turning point in the book at which we mostly leave the narrator's beginnings in Erie PA behind and, along with it, the difficulties of facing the dead or the dying. It's almost as though the narrator can no longer be immersed in that world.
Beginning with "Hadish's Storm," the book moves away from what we can count on as concrete toward something much more ethereal. The experience of "Hadish's Storm" is panic and a sense of being out of sorts, locked out of what was true before.
I ran downstairs in shorts
afraid it could be hail ...
White breath, my palm stung
groping the doorknob,
the air like a machete,
where the blade ends. ...
Wet white come down dissolving
on my eyes. Shush.
Locked out, the door swung behind me
keys pocketed inside
the long coat laid across
the sunk, buckling mattress upstairs,
me down here alone in the snow.
Even though the poems in the second half distance themselves somewhat from the familial experiences in the first half, loss and confusion remain. The poems after "Hadish's Storm" show us that we inhabit a strange world (like a dream, really) where connections are tricky and juxtapositions don't always make sense. In being so clear about this, these later poems urge us to understand that the earlier experiences are just as disjointed, just as surreal, that our world isn't solid.
The narrator explores this nebulous quality throughout the book, varying the structure of the chapbook's poems dramatically to reinforce it. Each piece has a different look on the page. Trigilio sets his lines in a variety of styles. There are prose poems. There are full-page single-stanza poems, and there are poems written in couplets. He mixes up short lines and long lines; he places some lines on the left margin and indents others.
He even organizes one poem -- "Arrythmia" -- according to syllable count. All lines, except one, are 12 syllables, and the lines break mid-word to accomplish this, to insist upon this. The syllable count imposes upon this piece a regularity, which, despite its necessity for the poem's theme and its perfection for the poem's theme, contributes brilliantly to its awkwardness and makes it one of the definitive poems of the chapbook.
Reviewed by Carolee Sherwood.
Poets’ Quarterly | October 2009.