Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

[Poem + Commentary]

Donna Hilbert


Larry, if you hear the crowds cheer 
know it’s for the boys, 
basketball champs this year. 
Larry’s Wizards, in your memory, 
emblazoned on their backs. 
They’re growing like trees: 
the palm tree on the peninsula 
planted for you, 
and the Nature Center’s sycamore 
so hardy it will grow to a canopy 
like the sycamore shading our first house, 
La Carta Circle, Dear Heart, remember? 
Remember the house, the street, the tree, 
our three babies, 
lives branching out before us 
a limitless haven of green.

—From Traveler in Paradise: New and Selected Poems, Pearl Editions (2003)


“Trees: A Nook in the Memory Palace”:
Commentary by Donna Hilbert

My husband is dead. Physically erased from earth and yet still everywhere. The world an accidental memory palace where there is no forgetting, where there is no escape. Every walk in those early days, along the beach or through the city, down the hallways of our home, every setting, man-made or natural, was imbued with his presence and imbued with his absence.

When I read “Secrets of a Mind Gamer,” by Joshua Foer in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, I am taken back to my own time of sudden tragedy. Foer tells the story of the 5th century B.C. poet, Simonides of Ceos, lone survivor of a banquet hall collapse: “...he remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting.” From this experience he articulated a theory, often called a memory palace, of locating and recalling memories in physical space.

Grief. Memory. Geography. Space. It has been more than twelve years now and prose still fails me. I have rebuilt my life and am happy for each day, yet I still can’t write about Larry’s death in a straightforward way. Words, like so many ants crawling across the page, do not march toward meaning.

My husband is dead, under the wheels of a car driven by a life-long heroin addict going home after a visit to a methadone clinic one summer morning just after sunrise. Was he going home? I don’t know that for certain, but I do know there is a spot on Pacific Coast Highway in Sunset Beach that houses the memory, the impact, and the blood.

My agent, at the time, asks me to keep a diary, to write a memoir, a handbook for widows. I say no. I couldn’t approach it in prose then, and I can’t do it now. A poem is just the right-sized cup to drink from the ever-renewing ocean of loss.

I remember that “Trees” followed an initial flurry of grief poems that make up about half of my book Transforming Matter. It grew out of a moment or an exercise in a workshop led by Steve Kowit at Beyond Baroque in Venice. That Saturday I was feeling drained, dry, and fearful that I would never write another poem. If I never wrote another poem, what else could I possibly do?

Perhaps the prompt was to address somebody dead, directly, as in a letter. That detail is lost to me now. What I am sure of is that I took up a pen with my left, non-dominant hand and began to make marks on the page. The marks became words and at some point, the words took on meaning. I say took on, because anything that came to be came to be from the doing itself, not from intention on my part.

That is always the way it is with me. I sit down with a pen and paper and see what happens. I don’t think much about anything; I just push the pen across the page for the pure pleasure of it. I am sure that I wrote many drafts alternating left hand, right hand, because that is what I always do.

At the point when the left and right hand drafts come up the same, I type the poem into the computer. I read the drafts out loud as I go along. The dogs that keep company in my office enjoy this. If there is any glitch in the music of a poem, that must be worked out or the whole thing is lost.

What I learned from writing “Trees,” was something akin to what Simonides of Ceos discovered: when the roof caves in, when the earth opens up, when the sea of death washes us into another life, everything around us becomes a memory palace, with chambers we never imagined entering, with furnishings we can’t forget.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury