The Mnemonist


In the whitewashed rooms the blackboards
Were like windows onto space, and the numbers
Stars, wherein he wandered at will. A maze
Only to the experimenters, who thought him
A unicorn, or an enchanted prince, finding
Things as in a trance. Year after year he took
The numbers down from their places, from
Doorsteps, flowerpots, windowsills. Each
Like a flower or fruit waiting to be picked,
That grows again after he has walked by. And
The streets of the town where he was young:
This is what he remembers, not the numbers.
This the place he has been carried away from,
This they can neither measure nor perceive.


The mnemonist cannot understand poetry.
How can the moon be like a woman,
How can the light of her touch fall
Across the bare shoulders of the river?
He shakes his head, it makes no sense.
When he was a boy, playing at the edge
Of the lake, someone placed bricks
And pieces of brick in the crooks
Of the willow trees, like steps
Leading into the upper branches.
As his memory grew, so grew the trees
Around the bricks: each willow now
Chambered with interior passageways.
That must be like what the moon is really like.


What do you remember most? When they took
My father to one of the back rooms upstairs
To die of an impacted tooth that even a vet
Could have pulled. But he had never been sick
In his life, and thought it was time. His face
Turned black with the poison. He told me
Of watching his own father die: "It was like
Trying on a suit in a place of mirrors,
A suit made of light. All around me there were
Familiar voices that I could not touch,
Like candles in a closed room." What would you
Like to forget? That same winter, when we
Went out to bury him, how the earth rang
Like a bell each time I hit it with my pick.


Once a general came to the laboratory
To pin a medal on the chief researcher.
All the dog kennels were thoroughly hosed down,
All the rat cages were piled with fresh shavings,
All the test tubes were washed and racked to dry.

The six-fingered children, the Siamese twins,
The dwarfs and the dog-faced people—all these
Were drawn up in ranks, at noon, on the lawn.
The general, walking down the rows, stopped
Before the mnemonist, who stood blinking at him.
"And this one," he said, "he looks quite normal.
Why is he here?" "He remembers things well."
"We should give him a medal too," he said,
Moving on, "and then send him to the front."


Your earliest recollection of that place?
Others who had been there a long time told me:
When the animals call to one another at dusk
They think someone is stealing the sun.
Dogs bark at the thief's shadow, chickens
Stir in their sleep at the size of the bag
He carries, it is bigger than the henhouse.
While they argue back and forth, the cat
Sits under the stairway, washing its face,
Waiting for the right time to go out
And find the sun, and bring it back in its mouth.
The sun will be new, it will have one yellow eye
And one blue, blue as the morning. That is why
No one in my village asks the cat to work.


There was a woman, too, he could remember
How she lifted her skirts wading out
Into the canal, how her thighs gleamed
In the shifting light. Later, on the grass
Of the slope, she spread her kerchief
And laid out wine, cheese, and oranges.
While they walked to the fête the fireworks
Were breaking over the grounds, and he shot
Metal birds and won a goldfish in a bowl.
"Do you wish you could live forever now?"
She asked, taking his hand. After that
He cannot remember, it comes to him
Like music—the tent where the dancers danced
The tango, shadows against the canvas walls.


After they had studied him for twenty years
They discovered that others had made machines
That could do what he did, only better.
They wrote a book about him nonetheless
And gave him a small pension and a room.
He took the book with him to the park each day.
There were men there who looked at the book—
Laboring men, from the provinces, who fed coal
To machines—who could not tell what it said.
The mnemonist did not try to explain anything;
It was pleasant sitting on the sun-warmed benches.
One day one of the men began tearing pages
From the book, rolling thick white cigarettes,
And passing them around like a common eye.

First published in The Reaper. Copyright © 1982, 2006 by Jared Carter.

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