Memory has become something of a meme during the COVID-19 pandemic. Remember dinner with friends? Remember live music? folks have asked me on social Zoom calls, the flippancy of the question masking real loneliness. I remember those things, too. I miss our lives as they were a year ago. I miss friends and colleagues. I miss telling jokes in person. I miss breaking bread.
Thinking about memory always moves me to re-read Joe Brainard. Brainard was a visual artist--a painter, a collagist, a collector of objects--and a poet. His association with poetry's New York School (Frank O'Hara, Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, and John Ashbery were among his close friends) had a profound influence on his art, and his production was prolific (by all accounts, Brainard wrote, painted, collaged, and assembled for the sheer fun of it). His best-known work of poetry is a book-length list poem titled I Remember, first published in 1970. The list builds through memories funny, poignant, and above all, specific:
I remember eating tunnels and cities out of watermelon.
I remember one brick wall and three white walls.
I remember drawing pictures in church on pledge envelopes and programs.
I remember Christmas cards arriving from people my parents forgot to send Christmas cards to.
I remember little cream jars in restaurants.
I remember going grocery shopping with Pat Padgett (Pat Mitchell then) and slipping a steak into her coat pocket when she wasn't looking.
You can see Brainard's visual imagination driving these memories, which often focus on concrete, tangible, very individual objects (though when he does zoom out to abstractions, they hit hard: "I remember how much rock and roll music can hurt. It can feel so free and sexy when you are not"). I've always loved I Remember for its imagery and for its lovingness: the list accumulates and accumulates, here is a life, here is my life, I was here. As we enter this academic year, I feel particularly compelled to remember; Brainard's brilliant list form helps me remember better.
The form is simple: start your sentences with "I remember" and then finish them. If you try writing an "I remember" list of your own, I guarantee that surprising memories will surface. May we all remember well!