Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Science of Forgetting

Troops patrol outside Marjah, Feb 11, 2010 David Guttenfelder  /  AP

The Science of  Forgetting
Sympathy for the Memory

There are three stages of processing information into memory
(1) encoding small branches crossed with green light whose shadows
surround ten birds and a fallen object(indistinguishable)under a sand dune
(2) stored in a permanent record whose name rank and government issued identification number is responsible for the
(3) retrieval of seasons dropped accidentally, and unhatched robin eggs
rolling under the articulated track mechanism
where sensory memory has found a picture of a child’s toy
left beside a bomb crater tied with dripping ribbons and rain.
An iconic facet of aftershock can see the places where the plush
has been rubbed off the ears.
For a period of several seconds short term memory
imprints the harsh sandpaper sound of a grackle’s  static
as Classic 107.7 introduces a man of wealth and taste
who’s been around for a long long year but still is watching
the acoustics go out into the central executive around the burial
of a second lieutenant who’d met him in Marjah after the 2007 clearing
while riding a tank without a general's rank every day
where the bodies stank, more scratching
on the visuospatial sketchpad
feeding the  phenological loop.
Odors reactivate
but are lost again somewhere in the episodic buffer
before entering long term memory where
his parents are bravely not crying or numbly not crying
as gold braid salutes and a stiff arm raised 
provides a mnemonic harmonic of Lucifer
behind a red wind 
arm reaching
still in need of some restraint
and all the semantic cues creep
into the working memory
of two who will pray to forget
the temporal order in which information has
been received to source memory tasks
which require specific context
Pleased to meet you,
hope you guess my name…

April 2012

Transposed italicized lyrics from Sympathy for the Devil are by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards,
 1968 © EMI Music Publishing
Memory terms drawn from wikipedia

hosted by the inimitable Chazinator (Charles Miller) of Metanoetic Poetics,
who asks us to explore the relationship between science and poetry.


  1. Wow. Somehow the analytical language just brings home the obscenity of all of this all the more pointedly. Maybe I'm projecting or something, but the poem seems to share the same sinister mania as the song.

    The only thing that could make this worse (I mean the situation, not the writing!) would be for that crazy bunch to picket the funeral. You know the ones I mean.

    1. Yes, that would add one more touch of irony than I could handle.

  2. I have sympathy for all sorts of devils, but I cherish deeply the memories that have provided me the reminders of the ones I wish to avoid. No regrets...only lessons, right? Liked the analytic word play, but won't be busting out the necromancy any time soon! (but there are a few images that I might be pushing out of the ol'memory dripping...) I will admit...the pic had me worried!

  3. This reminds me of a recent article in Science Illustrated magazine, which stated we may be able to inject enzymes that destroy the "protective netting" which forms in the brain that locks in traumatic feelings associated with memories. This could help with PTSD patients. Wouldn't that be awesome?

    Nice weaving of the lyrics.

    1. Thanks for the link, and I've heard about it actually--it would be awesome, provided it didn't completely lobotomize you--but I do think some memories are too vicious and destructive to carry, and need to be 'de-netted'for sure.

  4. frick...excellent inclusion of the lyrics in the end....and god what we put our troops through...the things they see...but then again even in our own was a pink blanket, with a blue teddy bear...the first dead girl i picked up off the side of the road for not wearing her seatbelt...the smell was of burning rubber and a hint of gas....she has one shoe on...never found the other...

  5. This hurt to read - mesmerizing, like The Deer Hunter. Itt hurt with the knowledge that it is so accurate, and our volunteer troops who shield the electorate from the atrocities of today's battlefield while television lulls them into thinking they're living another day in utopia. I'm old enough to remember VietNam deaths, and napalm fires served up with supper. Electric with your ferocious talent, Joy.

  6. This is absolutely brilliant, and a poem I wish I'd written! For me, the key to the brilliance is made up several components - the objective scientific exposition; the intersperal with the emotionally-charged Polaroids of soldiers, toys, tanks; the snatches of audio from songs (with the right era!). All these threads are drawn together, anchored by the most important of all components, already hinted-at in the title, the stream-of-consciousness technique consistent with the theme of memory and forgetting.

  7. So much here to digest. Your poem made me think of Ray Bradbury's "Farenheit 451" and the war planes flying overhead while the populace spent time watching the TV walls in their parlors pretending nothing was wrong---Mr. Bradbury certainly held vision. Your use of the song lyrics at the end chilled me. I don't know whether to thank you for such a great piece of verbal art or blame you for making my heart hurt. *sigh*

  8. I like the process of the memory, then weaving scenes too sharp or telling that one wants to forget. Some soldiers suffer post trauma of war and to an extreme when they can't forget, kill themselves. Enjoyed the presentation...a little bit different today ~

    Thank you for your kind words on my blog ~ I appreciate them ~

  9. Combining the scientific terminology, Stones, and war narrative creates a great sound collage that disrupts so much of the seriality we expect from a "story." It's very effective in creating an awareness of the terror of the war scenes you describe. This is one aspect of military and technobabble that is an often forgotten dimension: the ethical. I think it's great how you can use artistic methods to bring ethical questions to awareness. The question is can the awareness somehow disrupt the motivation to carry out such acts.

    1. Thanks, Charles. Good question--that's something neither science, poetry nor faith seems able to do consistently. I have a feeling it's in our DNA, the ability to be cynically manipulated for the war profiteers' gain by that 'good of the tribe,' sacrifice encoding.

  10. i like the internal rhyme here -
    while riding a tank without a general's rank every day
    where the bodies stank,

    i like how you connected the stones, and the devil into this too

    1. Can't claim any credit for the rhyme, it's straight out of the song, but thanks,z.

  11. i've never read a piece like this. you did this battlefield surgery, pulling wiring, installing sights and experiences, sealing it together with the voodoo rhythm of the juiciest lyrics. you made the machine before our eyes. he is real and alive. he is every beautiful son and daughter led astray by the glorified mad men who serve death.
    if i got it all wrong, forgive me. but i really like it the way i see it.

  12. Hi Hedge! The lack of punctuation not really an issue here (even for me) given the flow of context and event and mnemonic and madeleine, body parts and not-tears. I especially love the conflation/confusion between the bravely not crying and numbly not crying and the plush off the ears and all the different facets of long and short term memory and repression and search.

    Really interesting.

    You know I am a prose writer! When I read this, I am so impressed, but so aware of how different my own approaches are! (I'm not complaining, just commenting.)

    Anyway, very interesting. I also ended up using some little parentheses and letters--these work wonderfully in your beginning. You've got kind of a dark Woolfian sort of poem. I may not be making much sense but it is almost 1:30 here. k.

  13. So poetry and science are like those two adjacent houses that share a door warded by Maxwell's Semon, invoked by the physicist James Maxwell to demonstrate how the second of thermodynamics' dictum that in an isolated system, entropy never decreases ... Yet our sympathy for the devil at that door between history and its mysteries (or miseries) -- or better, between forgetting and remembering -- suggests that some things just won't commute, Will Robinson, like exploding stars and improvised roadside bombs and human minds. The sound echoes back to 'Nam and beyond and the hole is what's most memorable, the sharp jagged edges like Jagger pouting on the stage or Maxwell's Demon bedeviling the details, so that entropy -- our forgetting -- hogs the airwaves of classic rock radio, singing not singed but what we signed deafened from the blast. What was his name? I forget, but I still tap my toes to the tune ... Reconnaisance of the extent of damage to the brain from the Iraq and Afghan conflicts only makes us wonder if war is just, in addition to a massive heart-wound, a celestial mind-screw, the Big Bang that keeps tolling all the bells in our head the names of the dead. Great response to the prompt, H, and a delightful if shard-ridden weave. - Brendan

    1. How could I ever presume to call myself an editor if in my haste I don't proof -- "Demon" not "Semon" in the second line (though "sermon" and "semen" and "seamen" all wedge in that non-word); "compute" and not "commute" quoting the Robot from "Lost in Space." Sorry. - B

    2. Thanks for the clarification, B, and kind words--I thought maybe you were somehow referring to Siemens, a huge electronics/engineering firm, but Demon makes much more sense. I like the idea of the two neighboring houses as well. Thanks for picking up on the parallels with Viet Nam, another war that dragged on and on, but one that seemed to rouse more indignation instead of less, like this all but forgotten one. Nothing about war computes imo, so a very apposite quote.

  14. Thank you for not tuning out what wants to annihilate us. To live within these times, these impossibilities in the writing of a poem is to feel their weight and tearing. Beautifully crafted, and a difficult write in many ways.

  15. this was clever- the form, rading like a process, the 'how to' the 'steps' of remembrance, which played brilliantly into the theme, of warr- its derctives, its orders, it plans (almost scienntific in it sstragey) but negating the human cost, the pain, the death, its futility, the emotions of the victims families- none of whihc can truly be captured, or remembered, by those who sit at home in the pentagon. the luicifer reference as well...i'm wondering if hes pulling th strings on both sides of the battle. Fantastic poem.

  16. I have to say with Ed that I have never read anything like this. Unless you have more like it up your sleeve it is unique. It could be seen as a metaphor for our times: the beauty of the language and the imaging and the ugliness and evil of the reality that underlies them. It is totally and absolutely brilliant. There is nothing to do but stand back and applaud.

  17. wow...first was a bit unsure when i saw it...just like one big piece without the punctuation and stanza breaks..but reading it, works the inclusion of the lyrics...and i agree with dave above..and stand back and applaud as well

    1. Thanks, Claudia--I left it like that so it would read/look more like an encyclopedia or newspaper article.

  18. You're on fire with the architecture, experimentation, and provision of a diving bell into the abyss of war. I will join the standing ovation.

  19. Not certain any comment I could make would do justice to this deeply complex and engaging poem. I understood only parts of it upon first reading. It clearly has many layers and will demand a sustained effort to tease out more of its illusions and references. Of one thing I'm certain, and that is, it will reward the attempt. A learned and intelligent write as I've come to expect from you Joy.


"We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." ~William Butler Yeats

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