The novelist Graham Greene has been quoted someplace as saying, “A good novelist has a bad memory,” as if holding too closely to what actually is is anathema to what might be. But there’s another way of looking at it too. If you look, really look, at what happens, an openness breaks through, born of not-knowing, of the unfathomable not-knowingness that lies beneath even the simplest acts.
It’s cold in the morning now, and we’ve finally shut the windows for the year. I’ve spent another summer in a quiet ecstasy of crickets and cicadas, of frog songs choiring from puddles and ditches. Now the mornings are silent, and the songs of summer – along with the circling spark of lightning bugs, the jagged blues of butterflies, moths, of incandescent beetles – all gone, like I knew they would be. All summer long I try to remember those moments, try to hold them in my mind, as if I only could remember it strongly enough then it wouldn’t leave me, not really. I wouldn’t be left, alone, surprised, caught by winter’s silence.
I’ve done this with people too, watched them breathe in their sleep, as if I could memorize the curve of their lips and somehow, hold them to me, keep them forever at this exact moment in time. There’s a loss that happens even then, even at the moment of holding the tightest that moment is slipping away. It’s gone, lost, and even, despite everything that I can do to make it otherwise, forgotten.
There’s a beautiful version of a song that Dillard Chandler once sang as it just happened that he was being recorded, a version of a song that no one had ever heard before, but for anyone who’d heard the recording it’s the only one they’ve ever known, and they’ve set about, as disciples do, to memorize it just the way it was set down in that recording. It’s a love song, a lullaby, a ballad, and like any of these or all of these kinds of songs, it carries generations of memory in it, a kind of insistence on story above insight, on action over reflection. It’s a story, sung into song.
Well, what it was of course is that Mr. Chandler was misremembering the song as he sung it. Probably he never sang it that way again. No telling for sure how he sang it after that, because as far as I know this was the only time it got recorded from him. The song itself is a kind of mash-up of two or three others. It’s got the tune from one, verses from a couple of others. It makes sense all together, as much as any of the old stories ever do, but it didn’t make sense to anyone who recognized the old songs. But for those of us who didn’t know the old songs, it was beautiful, and we learnt it.
My memory of summer is lost as surely as Mr. Chandler’s hold on the song he thought he was singing, but sometimes it helps to remember that the song he recorded wasn’t a bad one. It was lovely, and strange, and new. Orion’s belt tips across the horizon, his bow arm held taut, his arrow aimed into a direction I can’t see from here.