Tuesday, February 13, 2007

On poetry, memory, Jonathan Cott & the mind of God

In May of 1982, I bought a slim book of poetry titled Charms, written by an author I didn't know and published by Toothpaste Press. Printed on quality, heavy-weight beige paper, "Charms" looked exactly like what it was: a short collection of poems from a fine letterpress publisher of literary books. No more than 850 copies were printed. Jonathan Cott was the author.

In March of 1982, my world had been shattered when my two-year-old son Simon died of sudden bacterial meningitis. I bought Cott's volume for one poem alone, although I came to appreciate the others:
Death of a Child
after Rakugo

If I could see a face
Like my child's face
I'd go look for it
Among the little dancers

This poem grabbed me fiercely and worked that mysterious act of poetry that sears the heart and kindles hot tears and profound release.

I hadn't thought of this poem, or Jonathan Cott, in years. Then the other day I found the book and fell in love with it all over again. This time I read the familiar but forgotten poem from a happy distance of time and memory. I decided to look Jonathan Cott up on the Internet and see what he was up to. Was he still a journalist for Rolling Stone? Still producing small works of poetry?

I discovered that in the intervening years, Jonathan Cott had undergone electroshock therapy for severe depression (as my father had undergone several times in the 1950's, when it was given without anaesthesia). In Cott's case, the treatment caused the loss of his short-term memory and retrograde amnesia. The journalist/poet effectively forgot 15 years of his life.

Out of this experience he published a book two years ago called On the Sea of Memory: A Journey From Forgetting to Remembering. I remember reading reviews when that book came out. I did not connect the Jonathan Cott who wrote it with the author of my Toothpaste Press book Charms. You can read about it in Living Memento: Is Happiness Worth Losing Your Memory? by Jay Michaelson of Slate magazine.

From this episode of time travel I conclude the following. The Internet is indeed something new under the sun. Through it we gain access not just to information but to those doors, windows and bricks that are the building blocks of the architecture of human interconnectedness. We become like God in our ability to know, understand and love the infinite variety of human life and experience beyond our own.

Telephone Book
- by Jonathan Cott

First I erase your number
Your address
Your name
Then blow away the specks

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