“There was plenty of time to remember things, and perhaps most importantly, there was more time to misremember things. We had the opportunity to naval gaze and imagine what could have been. The time locked in our rooms was a chance to pretend that life had been something different, before we remembered what our lives had really been like.” (From an unpublished story, written in April, 2020.)
Memory has the unnerving ability to seem absolutely certain at the same time that it is fallible. Even after years of playing postmodernist games, there is a certain instinct to trust the narrator of a piece; to believe that what we are hearing is true. If anything, the mere appearance of something in print bestows an air of legitimacy and authenticity. This can be used as both an integral part of satirical effects, or a sort of dark magic in the wrong hands. To engage meaningfully with a text, we have to be willing to be open in as much as we are willing to raise our suspicions. How much trust are we to give our memories or the memories of other people as a foundation for documenting our lives?
Joe Brainard’s experimental memoir, I Remember, collects a series of paragraphs, each of which begins with “I Remember…” and each of which presents a specific memory. In this way, Brainard operates in the tradition of Gertrude Stein, with the force of repetition baring the constraints of a mantra or rosary. There is also a hat-toss to the surrealist concept of a text that could be created as if painted by number—a formula for artistic production, made for humankind in the assembly age, to be given a thought and be asked to complete it.
I remember pillow fights.
I remember being surprised at how yellow and how red autumn really is.
I remember chain letters.
I remember Peter Pan collars.
I remember mistletoe.
I remember Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (so sad) in Meet Me in St. Louis.
I remember Judy Garland’s red shoes in The Wizard of Oz.
I remember Christmas tree lights reflected on the ceiling.
I remember Christmas cards arriving from people my parents forgot to send Christmas cards to.Brainard (49)
These are just a sample, seasonally appropriate, from page 49. Within this selection, we see the mixing of a personal experience (Christmas tree lights reflected on the ceiling and cards arriving from people Bainard’s parents forgot to send cards to) and a larger, cultural memory (Judy Garland). What intrigues in the rereading of I Remember is the way that the listed memories bounce off of each other, sometimes forming a clear connective sequence around a theme—food, sex, religion, the movies—or seeming sometimes to shift focus without a clear connecting path between them.
Brainard’s memory is explicitly tied into cultural memory, not only that of his own association with the New York School, but also from the media-centric culture of his youth—movie stars especially. If you want to search for name-dropping, you can find the famous acquaintances referred to here. I admit my own eyes opening a little wider as I tracked down the appearances of Frank O’Hara and the movie star that I always associate with the unfortunate poet. (“Lana Turner has Collapsed!”, poor dear.) “I remember that Lana Turner was discovered sipping a soda in a drugstore” (59). But this is only the partial, tabloid truth, a false memory, or rather a memory of falseness, tied to a publicity story fed to fan magazines and newspapers during the height of Hollywood’s power to transform an actor’s life story. In spite of this, the romantic notion of the story is itself a drug, a machination of a publicity machine that liked to place the impossibly beautiful halfway in our reach. Lana Turner was once a girl like you. We remember truths just as easily as we remember illusions. There are moments in which we have to choose whether to continue believing in a given illusion or received truth and choosing to find a new truth, a new story. The memory of the false story can remain as a kind of trivia.
The memory of Lana Turner, along with the aforementioned Judy Garland, brings a small point that is worth noting. Elements of I Remember, along with other works by Brainard, often refer to the coded culture of queer icons, particularly the use of “Golden Era” Hollywood (as well as other pop culture materials) in conjunction with a camp sensibility. Brainard’s perspective as a gay man is inherently tied to his memories of sexuality and his experience of culture. At the same time, anyone of his generation, queer or not, would have seen Judy Garland, either in a film or on television or on the radio, and would most likely have experienced her impact on the culture as a star figure. In this way, the presentation of this memory is a hand reaching out to both the straight audience and the queer audience, a place of common ground as much as double-meaning. In this sense, the construction of I Remember is itself in a sense camp, operating on multiple levels of meaning; yet operating in a seemingly straightforward and unironic way. The text is itself able to step away from this same camp sensation by virtue of its willingness to detail the explicit physical and emotional details of the author’s desires and memories of desire.
It is easy to create one’s own structured memories by following Brainard’s pattern. I don’t know the extent to which Brainard revised and reworked his sentences (though it had to have happened, given that I Remember is in fact a gathering of several smaller published series based around the “I Remember” theme). In works such as this, the personal reflections of the author almost imply the opportunity to remember—to become an active participant in the making of the text, or to respond (either seriously or as parody) by creating a text revising the original question. What follows is roughly an unedited page of what came to mind when I started to piece things together:
I remember convincing my father that oatmeal cookies with icing were fewer calories than same cookies without icing. (And they were, according to the package!)
I remember vending machines in a coin-operated laundry mat next to the local library where my parents would drop me off for an afternoon once a week. I would promise not to leave the library and then sneak over to the laundry matt to get a treat with coins I gathered through the week.
I remember that the vending machine was broken more often than not and wouldn’t give me my change back.
I remember putting a piece of pumpkin bread into the microwave too long and a cloud of smoke that looked like sulfur covered my face when I opened the door.
I remember my first consenting experience with a man was with a man whose name I can’t remember.
I remember trying oysters for the first time with my best friend, who was obsessed with them, and the champagne we ordered, and the way we compared notes about what oysters were said to taste like and how that idea did or did not meet expectations.
I remember throwing up at a hookah bar because I had bronchitis but had gone along to support my then-boyfriend at open mic night. The smoke had come into my eyes, ears, nose, and throat. I suddenly stopped breathing and my words were replaced by sickness as I ran to the bathroom and desperately tried to clean myself up.
I remember that he kept playing as I was sick and I remember that he didn’t ask if I was okay and I remember that he didn’t understand why I didn’t want to kiss him after.
I remember my brother biting my hand because I was brushing his hair too aggressively.
I remember being in a glass elevator in Georgia the year that the Olympic bombing happened.
I remember Razzles. And Mallow Cups. And Pecan Spinwheels kept in the freezer until they turned into rocks.
Brainard’s text becomes a perpetual writing prompt—creating a series of potentially endless revisionary, remixed, and extended works employing the formula. The writer Georges Perec did just that, in a book that, more than An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, speaks to the documenting of place and time: not just three days in a series of cafes across from a fountain, but a lifetime in fragmentary bursts of symbols.
“This cultural resistance to translation is more obvious in what may be Perec’s most untranslatable book, Je me souviens (I Remember), a collection of brief remembrances of things and people that are indecipherable to anyone not French and not of his generation.”–Footnote from Translator’s Afterword to An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Marc Lowenthal.
What does this say about how personal a work can be? Can a work develop a language that is so much “inside baseball” that the attempt to translate it to another language and another time might go beyond the usual difficulties of translation that the reader must be welcomed into the world of the writer, as if a blueprint was needed to understand even what the context of a work meant, much less the content of a work? One of the authors of the collective known as Wu Ming also happens to be one of the primary translators of Stephen King’s novels into Italian. I once read an interview with this Ming member, saying that one of the difficulties of translating Stephen King was the use of brand names in his work—it’s not just cigarettes, they smoke Pall Malls. It’s not just candy, it’s a Mars Bar. These things are a shorthand to the American reader, something that we can swap the specific name brand for the generic concept of a piece of candy or a cigarette, that do not translate well across land, language, and time. I think of the domestic novels that I read in college that would make reference to a particular cleaning product—clearly referenced as a joke—and hoping for the footnote that would give me something to latch onto. This reference, this memory, did not translate into my own. Having grown up in a different America than Joe Brainard, it is amazing how infrequently I had to make a gesture towards the footnote, when something would pass me by completely. These works are specific to his time and place (and his remarks about women and non-white people are evidence of the passive, generational prejudice that eventually kills us all); yet I can identify with the memories of a man who died before I was born.
In Perec’s hands, “I remember” becomes a sort of challenge, reflecting the way in which these memories, as a whole, can only belong to one person in total—Georges Perec. There will be overlaps and moments of parallel between author and reader, but the sum of the parts can only be collected in Perec’s notation of these memories. In Perec, we see how culture can become a gap in the sympathy of our memories. Indeed, it is much more difficult to find an appropriate sample from this work, as the entries form a series of declarations that are so specific as if to be without meaning to an outsider.
I remember an aperitif that was called “le Bonal.”
I remember “Prosper youp-la-boum.”
I remember the third-class carriages on trains.
I remember that in Merrily We Live, there are two dogs, one called “Get out of it,” the other “You too.”
I remember that Jean Gabin, before the war, had a contract stipulating that he had to die at the end of each film.
I remember the Yves Klein exhibition, at the Gallery Allendy, Rue de l’Assoption.Perec (42)
It is when a remark such as “I remember the murder of Sharon Tate” appears that the reader feels something to latch onto. Words and suggestions appear that a reader may understand in part but may not put into the correct context. Within the specificity of memory, there are also moments where Perec allows for the limitations of memory and the idiosyncrasies of personal reflection to take forefront of the text, recalling the ways memory can be shaped and reshaped, to admit to the absence at hand. “I remember the radio programs (Comme il vous plaira) presented by Jean-Pierre Morphée and ?” (76). The work concludes with an invitation to the reader to create their own list of “I Remembers” inspired by Perec’s example.
The volume composed by Perec includes a substantial index, with references, corrections, explanations, photographs, and suggestions of the work’s relationship to the cosmology of Perec’s other writings. The value of the work, especially when read immediately after Brainard’s, is two-fold. It calls into question the reliability of a world created by the declarative voice of a narrator. It also reflects the cracks in an assumed common ground and collective experience brought by a reader to the text. At heart, the formula for structured memory provided by the simple phrase, “I Remember,” opens the door each time to a deeply personal, radically different experience of memory, truth, and time.