Inventing a new phone?
Here’s the beginning of Claribel Alegria’s 1988 poem “Summing Up,” a poem I read this week for the first time –
In the sixty-three years I have lived some instants are electric
I paused, reading that. “Instants are electric.” I know what that feels like, though after a moment I wondered if Alegria meant those moments were more electric in memory than they felt when they happened, or if they were charged in real time, or perhaps both.
I don’t trust memory. I also have a deep fear of inheriting my paternal grandmother’s Alzheimer’s Disease. But what else do we have, how else do we know ourselves?
Instants are electric. My first thought is I remember walking late at night next to my dad during a snowstorm and the whole neighborhood was dully orange from the streetlamps’ reflection – but that memory was only electric later; at the time, it was all color and mood. And I remember, when I was fourteen, fooling around with my homecoming date in the darkness of her family’s dining room, we have might been caught any minute, and that was electric then. And then I remember when my grandfather died, my dad’s dad, and when I got the news, I was nearly sick, crying with my head between my knees, from grief that came out of nowhere and shocked me, almost offended me, in a moment that was electric then and still now.
Reading that poem this week, I wondered if someday we’ll have a telephone for memory, in the manner of an old rotary phone. You dial a memory. You experience it as crisply as you would a call – only sound, no picture, transmitted through the handset. Or maybe it’s not just audio but film, all visual, still no feeling. Or it’s just feeling, nothing visual, nothing aural, somehow the internal facts of a body and mind from that moment are precisely and fully rendered back into you. I think even then you’d still be limited, you’re interpreting rather than fully re-experiencing; after all, this is a telephone, not a time-travel machine. But imagine if you could dial other people’s memories, these electric moments. Experience – audio, visual, or deep from their body into yours – what it meant to them. I picture one of those old phones with the finger wheel. I dial the number. The long tones commence. The memory answers, and as it begins I remain myself, but now I’m inside this other person in some meaningful, if minor way. It’s voyeuristic, almost larcenous, collapsing the impossible distance between two persons, though perhaps richer for incorporating my imagination, my own memories – the story of me in this moment meeting the brief electric instant of another person, one that played a role in who they became.
Funny, looking over this last paragraph, I realize I’m describing a novel. The act of glimpsing a life briefly, limited in understanding and maybe richer for it. Lol.
Here’s the Alegria poem in full:
"Summing Up," by Claribel Alegria In the sixty-three years I have lived some instants are electric: the happiness of my feet jumping puddles six hours in Machu Picchu the buzzing of the telephone while awaiting my mother’s death the ten minutes it took to lose my virginity the hoarse voice announcing the assassination of Archbishop Romero fifteen minutes in Delft the first wail of my daughter I don’t know how many years yearning for the liberation of my people certain immortal deaths the eyes of that starving child your eyes bathing me in love one forget-me-not afternoon the desire to mold myself into a verse a cry a fleck of foam. From issue no. 108 of The Paris Review, translated by the author and Darwin J. Flakoll
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Meditations in an Emergency is a micro-essay published Saturdays by novelist Rosecrans Baldwin about things he finds beautiful, with a longer essay once a month for subscribers, written in the woods.
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Rosecrans is the bestselling author of Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles, winner of a 2022 California Book Award. It’s now available in paperback from Bookshop, Amazon, and (preferably) your local store. Other books include The Last Kid Left and Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down. His debut novel, You Lost Me There, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.
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