Today’s title is derived from the memoir by Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, and we apologize for any implied diminution of Mr. Nabokov’s art.
People tell me I have a good memory. They typically say that because they’ve heard me quote some obscure lines from some obscure work by some obscure (or unknown) author. It’s a trick. Early in life, I got into the habit of memorizing things, so I practiced. But, since I’m inherently a lazy person, I rarely devoted the final 20% of effort to truly mastering the material, and so it has faded away entirely or sits there in the ol’ brain pan slightly jumbled around with missing pieces, like a poorly cared-for Monopoly game.
Therefore, it’s likely that I don’t truly remember ALL of whatever I’m quoting, and whenever I check one of my “quotations,” I discover that I almost always have them wrong in some way. The Counselor always catches me at Shakespeare and Yeats and Shelley and the other highbrow cats whom she CAN quote (and it’s a long list), so I try to avoid doing it around her unless it’s from a work I know she’s never read, like Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories.
In about my sophomore year of high school I set out to memorize “The Raven.” I nearly had it, too, but — true to form — didn’t really nail it. Then — who can fathom the adolescent mind? — I decided my next target would be “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde. It’s a massive poem: something like 800 lines. Insanity. I can still quote a few stanzas, but it’s a certainty that I don’t have those quite perfectly. Another English poet, A.E. Housman, became my fixation for quite a while, and I have a lot of his poetry in my head, mostly correct — I think. I still relish the many lines I remember from Mr. H. But it’s almost never 100 percent accurate. Laziness.
If we’re lucky, we all have extensive memories, if not always entirely accurate down to the Nth detail. If we’re even luckier, many of them are good memories. Consider how marvelous it would be to really recall in detail all the books, poems, songs, movies plays and concerts you’ve seen or heard. Think of the sunrises and sunsets, mountains, deserts, beautiful buildings, spectacular rainbows and snowstorms and the thousands of miles that have passed by outside your car window that now are only shadows, or utterly forgotten. I can point to the places I’ve been on a map, and trace my routes, but I no longer own the thousand detailed memories of sight, sound and smell. And the faces: thousands upon thousands of human faces. I remember many, in a glass darkly, but many more are lost beyond recovery. And the voices that went with those faces: silent now, gone.
Instead, despite all the wonders I’ve witnessed, my head is filled with trash. Perhaps it’s just a quirk of my mind. Friends, the worthless detritus I can summon up is shocking. Do you need the lyrics to the theme song for the TV show, “The Rebel” (starring Nick Adams)? Got ’em right here (pointing to head), along with about a hundred other stupid TV themes. I used to amaze my co-workers with that little trick. “Hey, anyone remember the words to the “Maverick” theme song? Ask Brad!” No sweat: I stepped out of my office into the fourth floor hallway and sang it, cold. I remember silly poems from books I read in fourth grade and fifty year-old advertising campaign slogans for products that no longer exist (“Winston tastes GOOD like a cigarette SHOULD”). What a waste of brain cells!
Memory, leave me alone! Most of us have the occasional “earworm” curse: we wake up with some stupid song running around in our head. Of course it’s never the Segovia recording of “Concierto de Aranjuez.” No, it’s almost always something like “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies or “Muskrat Love” by … now who WAS that, anyway? And, for me — true to form — it’s never something I can remember more than a couple of lines of, so for hours I have:
Ahhh, honey, honey, (duh-da-duh-da-da-da),
You are my candy girl,
And you’ve got me wantin’ you.
Over and over. And that’s it; that’s all I remember. Hours of agony ensue.
All this comes to mind because — as so often happens — one of these utterly worthless bits of mnemonic misery has arisen in my brain today. Where does this stuff come from? Honest to goodness, friends, apparently some time deep in the early 70s, somewhere on the shadowy borderline between The Summer of Love and the Disco Era, a complete poem by that avatar of effusion, Rod McKuen, actually passed before my eyes and fixed itself in my brain as if it were an invasive otherworldly species and I were John Hurt in “Alien.” It’s true. I can recite an entire poem by Rod McKuen, AND IT’S IN MY BRAIN! Make it stop.
Of Mr. McKuen, Wikipedia makes the following assertion: “He was one of the best-selling poets in the United States during the late 1960s.” Well. Name another best-selling poet, EVER. (The irony of this being that at the very moment during my college years when I must have encountered that dastardly McKuen brainworm, The Counselor and I were classmates with a future poet laureate, Rita Dove.) “Best-selling poet.” Let’s think about that together, for just a moment.
My gift to you is that I will not print the McKuen poem here. You’re welcome. Remember me.
I’ll leave you with this:
Johnny Yuma was a rebel, he roamed through the west.
And Johnny Yuma, The Rebel, he wandered alone.
He got fightin’ mad, this Rebel lad.
He packed no star as he wandered far
Where the only law was a hook and a draw
The Rebel, Johnny Yuma!
© Brad Nixon 2014, 2017. Lyrics to “The Rebel” by Richard Markowitz. Still from “The Rebel” TV series may be subject to copyright protection against unpermitted commercial use, perhaps the original Goodson-Toddman Productions or Timeless Media Group, who released a DVD collection in 2015.