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Options March 8, 2012: Michael Ruby: Fleeting Memories


This is a collection of memories that popped into my mind over a period of seven years at work, as a copy editor at The Wall Street Journal, across the street from the World Trade Center. As far as I can tell, the memories came from nowhere, with no relation to the mostly political articles I was editing about the Republican takeover of Congress, the government shutdown, Monica Lewinsky, the Starr Report, the downfall of Newt Gingrich, impeachment, Florida or Bush v. Gore. Many of the memories are glimpses of places, a street corner and nothing more, as if a major function of the mind were this continuous global positioning, this continuous murmuring, “Right now, I’m at the southeast corner of 10th Ave. and 64th St.” The places are distributed fairly evenly over the course of my life, with a somewhat disturbing precedence given to the streets around my childhood home at 251 Montrose Ave. in South Orange, N.J.

I first became aware of these memories in my twenties, but it wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I really paid attention to them.  A cascade began when I learned that my wife, Louisa, was pregnant with our first child, Charlotte, in 1993. A few years later, when I was taking care of identical-twin babies, Emily and Natalie, as many as three memories would pop into my mind while I was changing a single diaper. I tended to view them as memories being killed off by the brain. This was the last time they would enter my consciousness—at least until I short-circuited the dynamic. Maybe so many memories popped up because a powerful new experience was killing out an old experience, taking over its “engram,” or whatever. I didn’t have a chance to write down many memories, which are truly fleeting, during child care. Almost all the memories in this book were written in the right-hand margin of a sheet I filled out every day at work with the names and headline sizes of the stories I handled. Usually, a memory or two a day would float up, sometimes more, sometimes none. The most that ever floated up was nine, I think.  At the end of my shift, I would copy them into a little notebook, often to some raillery from Josh Rosenbaum, Peter Saenger or Tom Walker. I, of course, was happy to accomplish some psychic research at work. In later years, I would make a photocopy of the story sheet and add it to the pile in my desk drawer, turning in the original to the copy chief with the memories in the margin erased.

This steady drip of memories through the years, this slow accretion, began to dry up in the beginning of 2000.  In the third week of the new millennium, I was loaned for a few months from the national news department to the foreign department, where they didn’t fill out story sheets.  When I returned to national news, we had finally shifted from our antiquated CSI computer system to a new one, Hermes, which enveloped much more of my mental space.  I started recording memories again, but at a diminished rate.  Instead of a couple a day, there was only one a week.  That’s where things stood on September 11th.  Our building, the so-called World Financial Center 1, was severely damaged by the collapse of the south tower of the World Trade Center.  The newspaper was dislocated to South Brunswick, N.J.  I knew that years worth of memories, hundreds of copies of story sheets, were entombed in my desk.  From the fragmentary reports available to us about the state of our offices, it sounded like my memories would be fine, a bit dusty at worst.  I didn’t care about them inordinately anyway, because my impulse had waned.  During that October, a few people were allowed to retrieve computer hard drives and the like from the WFC, but it was discouraged, and I figured I could wait until the dust settled.  Then, we learned the copy desk was being permanently transferred to South Brunswick.  Workmen were going to gather our belongings on the 9th floor of the WFC, take them to another floor, vacuum off any toxic dust, then box and ship them to South Brunswick.  People who didn’t know me would be handling my things—a recipe for disaster.  The story sheets looked so unprepossessing someone could easily throw them out.  Special dispensations were possible, but again discouraged.  It took me about one second to decide to seek one.  I walked over to the “wartime cubicle” of Cathy Panagoulias, my former boss, who was in charge of the move.  “Cathy, you’ve got to save me.  I’ve got the last part of a book manuscript in my middle desk drawer at 200 Liberty.”  “What is it?”  “I know this might sound flaky, but you know the story sheets we fill out?  Every day I wrote a couple of memories in the margins.”  Cathy rolled her eyes, but said OK.  A few days later, I was notified that a special delivery of my things could be retrieved in the basement of Building 5 in the South Brunswick complex.  The vast space was mostly empty, with a few small islands of boxes on the concrete floor, but I learned that in a month 15,000 boxes would be there.  My unconscious out-of-order autobiography was safe, along with everything else, including the much-maligned pile of newspapers I always had on top of my desk.  I was pleased in a way to find that my last memory was from September 10th, and that it was portentous.  If our building had been destroyed by the attack, as one might have reasonably expected, all the memories after number 1035 would have been lost.

MICHAEL RUBY is the author of five poetry books: At an Intersection (Alef, 2002), Window on the City (BlazeVOX, 2006), The Edge of the Underworld (BlazeVOX, 2010), Compulsive Words (BlazeVOX, 2010) and The Star-Spangled Banner (Dusie, 2011). His trilogy, Memories, Dreams and Inner Voices, is forthcoming in Spring 2012 from Station Hill Press, and includes Fleeting Memories, an Ugly Duckling Presse ebook, and Inner Voices Heard Before Sleep, an Argotist Online ebook; his poetry book American Songbook is forthcoming in Fall 2012 from Ugly Duckling.  A graduate of Harvard College and Brown University’s writing program, he lives in Brooklyn and works as an editor of U.S. news and political articles at The Wall Street Journal.


In the 1980s, when I was in my twenties, I tried and failed to write a manifesto about poetry. It began: Poems slow the reader down.  A good story makes readers want to leap ahead and find out what happened.  A good poem makes readers slow to a halt, lose themselves in the present of these few words, perhaps even going backward, realizing that there's more in what they passed than they thought.  It forces them to regard each word, to try to join the writer in selecting each word.  Words break free from their contexts. If we accept the view of Roman Jakobson, in fiction and nonfiction, the communication/mimesis predominates; in poetry, the words themselves predominate.  The signifier over the signified.

LANGUAGE poetry, by destroying conventional syntax, by putting words next to each other that don't normally go together, forces the reader to read one word at a time.  In a formal sense, it's pure poetry.  But what a sacrifice it makes to guarantee its purity.  Compare Clark Coolidge and Shakespeare, which is also pure poetry.

One way the writer causes the reader to slow down is by writing one word at a time.  However, prose can be written that way, too.  So what lets poetry further "charm" language?  The weight at the end of each line that we have to keep pushing aside? The cliche that a poem can't be paraphrased is another way of saying this. It's this that makes Stein and Zukofsky such radical figures in our tradition, though perhaps descendants of Rimbaud and Mallarme, who, in “Un Coup…,” partially accomplished this by spacing out the words.

Here are some related fragments: It was in this period that it became important for me not to talk to anyone when I was writing, to completely sequester myself from other people.  Writing poetry became an alteration in my relationship to language, a glacial slowing of the rate at which words come to me. Poetic composition became a glacial slowing of the rate at which words come to me. Poems slow down the flow of language to one word at a time.

As I continued writing poetry in the 1990s and after, these ideas became somewhat dormant within me, and inapplicable to some of my books.  But I have always believed that poetry is a slowing down of the speed at which words come to me, both in reading and in composition.  Compared with speaking or email-writing, poetic composition is a glacial slowing of the rate at which words come to me, ideally to one word at a time, or even one syllable at a time.  “One word at a time”: That’s what I saw in Shakespeare and Frank O’Hara in the early ‘80s, that’s what I learned from Clark Coolidge in the early ‘90s. I believe there is nothing more antithetical to poetry than the high-speed performance of it, and I don’t understand why many experimental poets read their poems so rapidly.

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Michael Ruby  Fleeting Memories   Options

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