Garrison Keillor shared the poem below, “Searching” by Billy Collins, the other day through his Writer’s Almanac, and it struck a chord because it reminded me of myself.
I recall someone once admitting
that all he remembered of Anna Karenina
was something about a picnic basket,
and now, after consuming a book
devoted to the subject of Barcelona—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—
all I remember is the mention
of an albino gorilla, the inhabitant of a park
where the Citadel of the Bourbons once stood.
The sheer paleness of her looms over
all the notable names and dates
as the evening strollers stop before her
and point to show their children.
These locals called her Snowflake,
and here she has been mentioned again in print
in the hope of keeping her pallid flame alive
and helping her, despite her name, to endure
in this poem where she has found another cage.
I had no interest in the capital of Catalonia—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—
no, you were the reason
I kept my light on late into the night
turning all those pages, searching for you everywhere.
I read a lot (because there’s so much great writing out there) and I often read too quickly (did I mention how much great writing is out there?) so the details of books, however enthusiastic I am about them, tend to get fuzzy pretty fast. For example, I loved the phantasmagoric novel Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu and wrote about it only a few months ago, but pressed to describe it today, only the scene where terrifed villagers ride on sledges through the snow springs clearly to mind. The rest is a kaleidoscope of scattered images and phrases.
The book about Barcelona that Collins mentions is likely Barcelona by Robert Hughes, although there he incorrectly calls the animal “Snowball.” Some research must have preceded the publication of this apparently offhand verse. The admission of forgetfulness about Anna Karenina that Collins recalls comes from author Nicholson Baker. He writes about the failures of literary memory in his idiosyncratic tribute to John Updike, U and I:
Almost all of literature capsizes and decays in deep corrosive oceans of totaled recall. I remember almost nothing of what I read. What once was Portrait of a Lady is now for me only a plaid lap-blanket bobbing on the waves; Anna Karenina survives as a picnic basket containing a single jar of honey; Pnin is a submerged aquamarine bowl; The Rock Pool's cab meter still ticks away, showing a huge sum, but the Mediterranean has taken over the rest of the resort town of Trou-sur-Mer; an antelope from some otherwise blank Christopher Isherwood short story springs wonderfully up out of oblivion “like a grand piano”; the ample landfall I think I have sighted in Paradise Lost turns out to be the “scaly rind” of the Leviathan in the first book; and even Alan Hollinghurst’s stunning The Swimming-Pool Library, which I am right now in the process of reading, haven’t yet finished, have no excuse for forgetting, already hangs suspended in my inhospitable memory merely as a group of “sodden sticking plasters” fluttering, as he describes them, like an undersea plant near the grate of a water filter. My quality of recollection may be more atomistically image-hoarding than some, yet the twice-ten-thousand-cavern-glutting expanse and depth of the “vast dying sea” of the once read, over which we all permanently and cheerfully row and pole and sail according to our talents, unless our sense of a particular work is stimulated by review writing, the commemorative essay, teaching, an imminent exam, or the hasty once-over that a dinner guest seems to feel is necessary before he or she meets the writer after a long interval, is the most important feature of all reading lives.
Need I say that this passage is almost the only part of Baker’s oeuvre that lingers strongly in my mind, existing alongside a Joycean snowfall of sugar packets from his novel The Mezzanine?
Looking at literature this way, as nothing more than a florilegium of disconnected phrases, would seem to diminish its importance, but I don’t agree. The rich, immersive experience of reading isn’t invalidated because books don’t stay complete in memory like mammoth carcasses in tar pits. You can’t clone a dinosaur from an ancient bone, but the fossilized fragments of our reading, even single words, can bring books back to life or something like it. Florilegium is a case in point; I learned it from Baker, and now every time I encounter it he appears before me, arms full of odd-sized volumes, like a bearded, beatific ghost.
Marco Polo didn’t undertake an adventure of two dozen years’ duration just to bring back a single souvenir, but that would be enough motivation for a writer to make the trip. The journey is its own reward, and a cheap memento is a bonus. In Springer’s Progress, David Markson interrogates himself about what he hopes to gain from his writing and answers, “With luck a phrase or three worth some lonely pretty girl’s midnight underlining." You say ambition should be made of sterner stuff? Nah. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? If I pass through a Paradise of pages in a dream and have just one flower presented to me as a pledge that my soul had really been there, that’s enough.
By the way, though “Searching” refers to “she,” Snowflake was in fact a male gorilla. An intentional mistake by Collins to further emphasize his poem’s truth? I wouldn’t put it past him.