Often, But a Little at a Time


Often, but a little at a time,
when muddled memory stirs from its stupor,
I stoke the sabled swann and exhume in mind
remembrance of you; you were here but less than whole.

When muddled memory, astir in stupor,
sees you sitting, lost in play, the fleet, fading
remembrance of you, you were here. But less than whole
the engram lives, fragment of a flare firing,

sees you sitting, lost; in play: the fleet, fading
light of your cheeks, your lips, your eyes, your nose,
the engram lives, fragment of a flare firing.
I shutter my eyes to capture, embalm, a

remembrance of you. You were here. But less than whole,
I stoke the sabled swann and exhume in mind
a living engram, a frail fragment flaring, firing
often, but a little at a time.

About this poem:

This is a poem about my son Daniel, who died of cancer when he was three. Other poets have stated that death is very difficult to write about head-on, so we approach it, trembling, from angles, at a distance. “Woe to the writer who is overwhelmed by his subject,” (Elie Wiesel).

As time wedges wider, between Daniel’s physical presence and the present, I find myself struggling to recall details of his life but there are flashes and glimpses of memory, I try to capture these, a desperate attempt to forever hold.

Mentioned in the poem is an engram. An engram is a memory trace, a “representation of a memory in the brain. A retrieval cue induces a pattern of activity: if this pattern is similar to a previously encoded pattern you remember the event.” [1]

This poem is a pantoum. A pantoum is “the perfect form for the evocation of a past time.” [2] From the Poetry Foundation: “It comprises a series of quatrains, with the second and fourth lines of each quatrain repeated as the first and third lines of the next. The second and fourth lines of the final stanza repeat the first and third lines of the first stanza.”

The title of the poem is lifted from Proust (which also explains the spelling of swan as “Swann”). I stumbled across the following passage while reading Remembrance of Things Past:

“And he could never be consoled for the loss of his wife, but used to say to my grandfather, during the two years for which he survived her, “It’s a funny thing, now; I very often think of my poor wife, but I cannot think of her very much at any one time.” “Often, but a little at a time, like poor old Swann,” became one of my grandfather’s favourite phrases, which he would apply to all kinds of things.” – Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time

[1] Daniel L. Schacter, “Searching for Memory: The Brain, The Mind, and The Past”, (New York, 1996)

[2] The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Mark Strand and Eavan Boland