Bones in the Nightingale's Nest

I have spent the last two years of my life around people who were losing their memory.
And with the loss of memory
Is the loss of everything….

So I wanted to say something about memory…
I want to perform something about memory…
About how it is lost…
About how it is remembered.

About fragility…
Gossamer threads…
Spider webs…
Nestlike gatherings…

I want to talk about
The stories of love and loss
Those shuddering moments of meaning
That were meaning only for that one beautiful
And unique soul that told it to you:
Grandfather, Grandmother, Mother, Father, Teacher, Lover, Poet.

These people who are now dead
And gave you one of their stories.
The story as a means of remembering.
A mnemonic device.

The weight of that,
That fantastic odd tale,
The indelible images,
And whispered prayers,
The burden now that you bear

This Living Presence once carried by them

I am sorry…
I lost my train of thought here…

[ Searching over this page for several lost seconds]

No one else knows.
Of even if you do tell it to them,
They won’t carry it with them,
They won’t secure it
In the innermost temple of their memories.

What I remember is this question
That someone asked me:
Did you know humming birds make their nests from spider webs?

I am so sorry
I just can’t seem to remember
What I was going to say…


[ Again, looking over these notes for an almost uncomfortable amount of time.]

What was I saying?
No. It begins with…
I want to say something about memory.

These stories, memories, hummingbird nests…

I knew a woman once…
She’s dead now.

[ Pause. The following delivered hesitantly, with no flow.]

I found a ribbon
That fell one afternoon
From her hair in the woods
And the laughter in the woods.
And the memory of that red ribbon,

I was walking in the woods
Remembering laughter.
And just happened to look up
In the tree
The red ribbon,
Bound into a bird’s nest
And it was just so…

[ Uncomfortable pause. Look up from these notes to scan the faces in the audience. Slow.]

But, I am sorry…
I want to tell you
How I remember this story.
But not this one.

[ Fold notes up. Now speaking with confidence and no hesitancy.]

I want to speak from memory
No from these notes written down
They are trying to dance with crutches
I want to speak
About what I know by heart

[ The following is from memory.}

All time suddenly collected...

In 1819, Spring came early to Hampstead Heath,
The park in the northern part of London
That Unreal City where so many were so undone
Walking mindlessly around in a Ring of Death

And so many nightingales that Spring
Filled bush and branch and tomblike shadow
As if Death himself was sweetly whispering

John Keats
Now beneath a plum tree
That held a nightingale’s nest
Writing down words of fire
From the bright red blood
Dripping inside his chest.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!   
  No hungry generations tread thee down;   
The voice I hear this passing night was heard   
  In ancient days by emperor and clown:   
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path   
  Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,   
    She stood in tears amid the alien corn;   
          The same that ofttimes hath   
  Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam   
    Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

The seventh stanza of Ode to a Nightingale.
Words charged with such an intensity of meaning
That the language itself is consumed in the reading.

Keats again in the light darkness of dawn,
Around him Aedon, Philomena and Procne
His skull pierced through by their tragic song
And Fate as un-fightable as the sea
Mythic rightings of ancient wrongs

Aedon: mistakenly murdered her son.
Philomela: raped by King Tereus,
Her tongue cut out,
Weaves her tale in a tapestry.
Philomela’s sister, Procne
Revenges this rape proportionately :
Kills her own son by Tereus
And to make the revenge complete
Prepares for him a supper
And feeds him his own child’s meat

These unspeakable acts beyond the pale
Of our wretched civility
Each of these women transformed
By the Gods from vengeful insanity
Into easeful singing Nightingales

And Ah…
These nightingale grieve,
Sing such lament
Beyond the meaning
Of all meaningful things
As a Skeletal Ghost of God over the bend world broods
With bright skull and dark wings.

That self-same song now like a sick worm
In Ruth’s heart as she stands defiantly
Amongst the reapers as the sun above burns
And that distant song rises so quietly
Being reborn again within her bones
And though she could not hope to turn
And because she could not hope
She prayed that she might forget
These matters that occupy her mind too much

Keats there listening,
Already sick to death,
Quietly spits out a mouthful of blood
Onto the plum-stained ground
And with a ragged breath rakes
Obscene percussion to beauty’s aching sound

Then, he smiles at the strange, alien element of Ruth,
Standing there in the center of his poem
In the same way she stood out in the fields of Truth
When Boaz first saw her with the Reapers alone

“Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam”
Collecting around the poet's mouth
As he hangs on the cross of his fate forlorn
Spitting arcs of blood laced with doubt.

One imagines this nightingale’s song
In the brightness falling all around him,
Singing of “summer in full-throated ease.”
This mythical summer,
This zero season of no shadow or wrong
That this world might begin again.
In fires of absolving purity.

Keats sighs, wondering if it is all a sick dream.
There in the blueing light of dawn
All music, long departed.
From his infected memory.

Keats died on 23 February 1821
On the Spanish Steps in Rome
He desired only this be written
For memory
On a simple stone

Here lies One
Whose Name was writ in Water.

The Winter of 1822 was hard.
A great many birds died in their nests.
Fanny Brawne and Isabella Jones,
Take a chair into the frozen orchard
Set it beneath the barren plum tree,
Search through bonelike branches
Searching until they see it.

With Fanny’s help,
Isabella climbs up
Retrieves a nest
So fragile and frail
And within a hieroglyph of hope
The Bones of a Nightingale.

24 December 2014