HOW SOON IS NOW? Heather O'Neill's Memory Future examines memory and love
Heather Aimee O'Neill's Memory Future, winner of the 2010 Gold Line Press chapbook award, breaks upon the ear like a Sunday morning LP, and like a great record, the tones play upon each other and echo, and redouble, and enlarge, the needle skipping slightly between tracks, the rain coming down with steady even beats.
Broken into three sections, the titles of which come from English poet and writer Jeanette Winterson's Gut Symmetries, which both serve as an epigram to the entire work and introduce the metaphysical spines running through individual poems in this book. Winterson asks “What is salted up in the memory of you?...We think of our lives as linear but it is the spin of earth that allows us to observe time. ” O'Neill's speakers deal with a reality that begins in memory and works forward. And O'Neill's speakers often respond from the outskirts of love, defining a lover, reinterpreting a memory, recognizing that there is always one person in the relationship that is more desired than the other; one more caught up in the other's energy. O'Neill's dialogue with Winterson is one the many admirable things about this chapbook which feature poems that are compassionate, sensuous, and tender, but never fragile. They are like oaks covered in moss, at once serene and soft, but also hard and rooted in the past.
The book's prelude,“Certainty” features a chorus of voices, relatives and friends, who ask impossible and nagging questions to dead relatives and to those of have passed, and it's an appropriate set up for O'Neill's dialogue with memory. The questions these folk ask, many to religious figures, or historical rogues, frame the larger spiritual and emotional themes of the poems, such as asking “Jesus to speak slowly,” or Mother Superior “were we that unworthy?” but the more important and interesting questions are those asked to not Hitler or Christ, but to the husband, “Why?” to the father “where were you?” and to the grandfather “why did you sleep in separate rooms?”
“Salted up in the memory of you,” the first section, concerns the differences of spirit between two lovers, the speaker on the outside looking in, almost peeping at the other, remarking how different the two lovers are, and have become since joining. The poems threaten to reveal a relationship about to come apart, asking to “Begin at the end and remember/you were the one who asked for me?” The section ends with the powerful “From the Platform” where one lover watches the other leave on the subway and realizes that even within a relationship she is alone:
I walk alongside the train, turn
to catch your eyes one last
time through the commuter crowd.
But you look straight ahead into
the dark lines of the tunnel,
book resting on your lap, eyes
full of the hazel green in your scarf.
You could live without me.
Section two “the spin of the earth allows us to observe time” is a wonderfully done modern corona entitled “Winter in Spain.” A corona or crown of sonnets, which is, for those not in the know, a kind of chain sonnet, where the last line of the poem is the first line of the subsequent poem. The final line of the final poem is the first line of the first poem. A circle, a crown. A wonderful and difficult form to work within, and O'Neill gracefully alters the opening lines, and wiggles into the form her own way, keeping language fresh, virile. The subject is perfect for a corona, traveling through France and Spain with a lover, smoking, wine, the mysterious past, sexual tension that makes the back of your neck ripple. It's a sensuous dip into one's intoxication with a lover or companion.
Section three, “If the universe is movement it will not be in one direction only,” focuses on memory and reflection, and one the book's great strengths is that O'Neill manages to keep melodrama at arm's length while at a funeral, or at the beach, or while watching the shoreline for an errant father's tugboat to come home. The poet steers us through the past via relationships, their tenuous, and sometimes elliptical pull on our lives, and the book ends in the classroom, as the speaker visits her sister in school, and sees how her soft, respectable sister was once like her students, a little greedy, eager, contemplating more candy.
Memory Future is a taut, sensuous chapbook, highlighting the emotional landscapes between people we love, and how they affect us, our winding up and our winding down.