In my MFA program back in Pittsburgh we read a lot of books and essays that mentioned or talked about Pittsburgh in a class I took. At the moment, I can't remember the class or what it's real focus was, but I do remember looking for Pittsburgh in the strangest of places. Tonight, while rereading Li-Young Lee's incredibly poetic memoir The Winged Seed, I was reminded of that search in various texts when I turned from page 77 to 78 and saw, in a black marker-like ink I have since abandoned in favor of a fine-pointed black ink, "Finally!" scrawled into the margin with an arrow pointing to the phrase "East Liberty." At the time, I must have been searching for Pittsburgh amidst the symbols of "seed" "R" "winter" "ash" but now, four years removed from my last reading of the text, what I remember most is a scene where the author describes removing excrement from his father's bowels because his body will no longer purge itself of it without aid.
For years, when someone sharing a table with me ordered salad at a restaurant, I have waited for the image of a man lifting limp leaf after limp leaf of lettuce from his plate, depositing it into his mouth while spouting poetic brilliance or dropping socially awkward conversation between leaves without remembering precisely where the notion of such a thing came from. A story someone told me? A memory from my past? Until I stumbled across the description in Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar this afternoon. This was her memory, her reality or fantasy and I felt such relief at having discovered the source of this expectation, the reason for why a plate of greenery triggered this hope.
These are some of the moments from literature that have remained with me like a sticker on an old notebook whose image was once complete but now remains only a probed, scratched, faded fragment of the whole. Part of it remains, unremovable, though much of it is gone and its true form is entirely obliterated.
As a child, I could read countless books and recite in great detail precisely what happened complete with character descriptions, thoughts, authors, and, often, page numbers. My mother likened me to a sponge, constantly absorbing whatever I came into contact with, often unconsciously remembering. If you gave me a title, I could respond with a complete encyclopedic, Cliffs Notes knowledge without thinking. This was a time time of untainted recollection, too soon in years for me to confuse experience with a story I'd read. I filled my mental library, devouring books alongside my dinner at the crowded table each night, and stayed up late to know the ending, guided only by the moonlight streaming in from my bedroom window. I simply had to know what happened to these characters, these lives so different and more fascinating than my own. And I remembered every detail as if it were my life.
In the last year, I have read over 150 books in an attempt to study for my comprehensive exams. The list should have ranged from about 110-125, but in the course of revamping it, many books I'd read were abandoned and new books I hadn't read filled their void. These titles are piled in towers on my desk, precariously shifting with the vaguest hint of breeze. I have sorted and separated them into categories according to subject, resorted them by theme, stacked them according to which of my four questions they applied to and started over in favor of how they related to one another, what theories they exemplified, which ones directly alluded to others and so on. Many have come to feel like limp leaves in my hands, my recollection of them like irretrievable waste from my insides, though I have known them all intimately, but cannot call them to mind the way I once did as a child on a whim or as a game.
When I go to bed at night, the last image I have is of those towers of books across the room, stacked high, waiting to be reorganized and remembered when the time comes for me to call upon them when asked. My fear is that when that time comes, they will only come back to me in flashes of lettuce leaves and stubborn bowels, just a single, blank remnant rather than a complete symbol or whole. Already I have forgotten entire plots, authors, characters. Already, life has filled me with memories competing for space, making themselves comfortable in the minute spaces of the card catalog compartment of my mind.