Poetry: Billy Collins’ “Forgetfulness”

(For those who are are not so interested in poetry, there is a very cool video which accompanies the poem below. You won’t be disappointed).

Today, The Writer’s Almanac featured American poet (Laureante 2001-2003) Billy Collin’s “Forgetfulness.” As the title suggests, the poem deals with memory. Memory is, indeed, a fleeting thing. It’s rather frightening if you stop to consider the things which we (as people and a culture) forget. In Canada, for instance, the mistreatment of aboriginals is a history that is often overlaid with blanket terms like “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” At times there is something at stake in our forgetfulness.

Sometimes we forget things because it just doesn’t fit in with who we want to be, with who we see ourselves as. Surely, at some point in our lives, we’ve all said “I’m not that person,” or, “I would never do that.” Such utterances occur when our actions are incongruous with the narratives which we construct our lives to be. No, none of us are alcoholics, a-holes, liars, cheaters, mess-makers, vase-breakers, notch-makers (okay, I’ll stop), until, of course, we are. In such cases, we have two options: brush our action off as outliers, or, reconstruct the narratives of our lives. The former is much easier.

I digress, Collins’ poem has little to do with the willful amnesia of our pasts. The poem deals with involuntary memory loss, which, as we age, becomes increasingly evident. I’m not sure which is more frightening, willful or involuntary forgetfulness.

Cursing, blaming other people, even the cat, tearing sheets off the bed and throwing clothes in all directions, I searched for my pen (that one with just the right ease and flow) – the order of my world was corrupted by memory. It wasn’t where I put it.

I used to laugh at my parents when such moments would (increasingly) occur. Now, I pale as they happen to me.

This seems to be what Collins is getting at:

Billy Collins – Forgetfulness

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

As promised above, I’ve included a beautiful animated video that accompanies a reading of Collins’ poem. Animator Julian Grey did a wonderful job.