Compacting Time: Anne Stevenson’s Poems of Memory

What we say about time is that it passes. Yet to know that it passes, we must remember and anticipate. Memory works strangely on the passage of time, however, for to remember is to make past moments present. If time’s passage is like a line, then memory bends the line into a circle, or rather into a spiral, for we know very well that when we revisit the past in memory we are not in the past but have only made the past present for a while. And we know that our reliving of the past is imperfect: we have forgotten some of the details, or repressed them, or polished them up with the glamour of delusion, hope, or love.

Works of art like a lyric poem or a sonata, written out on the page and read or performed intermittently, allow us to relive the past perfectly. The poem or sonata is always the same, and often we know the work by heart as we say it out loud or perform it. Bas van Fraassen, in his book Laws and Symmetry,[1] points out that periodicity is symmetry in time. From the point of view of physics, periodic systems establish a pulsing stability in time as well as in space. When the earth comes back to the point of the autumnal equinox in relation to the sun, it would be a perfect restitution of the previous equinox if the earth and the sun were the only two bodies in question and they had no internal structure.

Physical systems may exhibit very precise periodicities: we set our scientific clocks by the vibrations of the cesium atom and our calendars by the dependable revolutions of the earth, moon, and sun. Biological systems exhibit more relaxed and variable periodicities; the circulation of the blood pumped by our hearts and the inhaling and exhaling of our breath are regular but variably susceptible to exertion and passion. Social systems are organized by much looser periodicities, which perhaps we should call repetitions that express natural periodicities in ordinary life. We go to work, say good morning to the proprietress of the coffee shop, and look forward to lunch. These repetitions are subject to more various, sharper perturbations. Though we cannot stop breathing, we can fail to show up for work, and one day in a fit of exuberance we may give the lady in the coffee shop a hug instead of a “good morning.”

Against this background, the perfect repetition of works of art is remarkable. We can perform them at any time, and there is no time of day or month of the year when we cannot or must perform them. Yet whenever we do perform them, the repetition is exact, a cultural analogue to the way the earth returns to the autumnal equinox, just the same every time, which abolishes the one-way linearity of time. All performances of Beethoven’s piano sonata, Opus 110, third movement, map onto each other; they are superimposed; they are, despite differences of interpretation, the same. Thus every rehearsal of this movement makes of time an odd spiral, with all the performances we remember and even some beyond our personal memories aligned.

Much great art acknowledges the transitory nature of things, the way they come and go via generation and corruption. As Isaac Watts put it,

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Bears all its sons away;

They fly forgotten, as a dream

Dies at the break of day.

And yet, and yet. The repetition of these lines, precisely as he wrote them, precisely as I sang them from the Episcopal hymnal fifty years ago, precisely as I write them now from memory, brings time to a standstill. It does not abolish time. Its action is not like that of a dam, but more like that of an indentation in the riverbank where the flowing water is caught and briefly circles. The written poem, the musical score on the page, stand for that identification of times. A lyric poem’s or a sonata’s action on the world and in the world has various effects; the circling back of time is one of them. Speak, memory, or sing.

Many of Anne Stevenson’s best poems reflect on the action of poetry and music on time. “Journal Entry: Impromptu in C Minor” takes as its theme five notes from Schubert’s work of that name. (All citations of her poems are from Poems 1955–2005.)[2] It begins in the poet’s “present,” recorded beneath the title: “Edinburgh, October, 1988,” an extraordinary day in Edinburgh because it is October, sunny and warm. This meteoric good fortune inspires the poet to try for a contemplative state free of two great, relentless successions, the inferential steps of rational discourse and the linear drive of time.

After weeks of October drench,

a warm orange day,

a conflagration of all the trees and streets of Edinburgh.


Let me have no thoughts

in this weather of pure sensation.

She heads to the sea, the Firth of Forth: driving the car is transformed into the floating of a leaf, the sea becomes the recurrence of its waves, and thought gives up its metaphors:

Sitting with pure sensation on the breakwater,

I unhook the wires of my mind.

I undo the intellectual spider’s web.

But then, what happens? For this poet, the outcome of her contemplative state is not the bliss of content-free meditation (for then there would be no poem), but rather ghosts, and a melody. A ghost is like a melody or a poem, for it is not a name or concept but a revenant, disembodied-embodied, there, just as melody plays and poems speak.

For there are people out there.

Not abstractions, not ideas, but people.

In the black, beyond the blue of my perception,

in the huge vault where the wires won’t reach,

the dead are lively.

The moment I take off my thought-clothes

I expose every nerve to their waves.


What is this sad, marching melody?

A spy, a column on reconnaissance,

the theme from Schubert’s Impromptu in C Minor.

The repetition of Schubert’s theme superimposes past moments on the present’s expanded now and brings the people out there inside the shelter of the poet’s awareness, inside the poem. One of them is the poet herself, as a child first and then as a young girl. A child, she listens to her father playing.

It is 1943.

In a farmhouse that has forgotten him,

a dead man is playing the piano.

I am ten years old.

The temporality of these lines is odd, to say the least; the poet is there both as a ghost among ghosts (active, effective, fitted out with intentions) and as the one who remembers, for after all the man playing the piano is dead. The other listeners are a Jewish philosopher and his wife who weeps over “a dead man’s dead march,” the dirge of the Austrian schoolmaster’s son, as she and her husband contemplate their exile from Europe and the horror that will leave behind it “the shoe-heaps, hills of fillings, children’s bones.”

Later in the poem, in the poet’s reflections, in historical time, she is the performer,

a puzzled girl I instantly recognize

although she died through more years than Schubert lived

to make room for the woman I am now.

She doesn’t know that she will become deaf. That damage, which robs the piano player of the possibility of listening, is juxtaposed with the greater damage of the Holocaust, “deafness and deadness.”

Then silence folding us in,

folding them under.


But here is the melody.

Schubert’s theme plays itself “over and over” in the poet’s mind, in the poem, as “She sits in the momentary sun looking at the sea.”

Then we are back to Schubert, “lucky, / for his talent was exactly suited to his time,” although he “died at thirty-one, probably of syphilis.”

A few moments of his life, five notes of it,

fuse with a few impromptu responses,

a few contemporary cells.


They provide the present and future,

of an every-minute dying planet

with a helix, a hinge of survival.

The memorable theme, exactly as Schubert wrote it, makes the past present and makes the present a setting for all those pasts, a place where the ghosts can gather. So Schubert is alive in his work, the poet and her father in their piano playing, creation and re-creation, as linear time is bent into “a helix, a hinge of survival.”

The circling back of a spiral, however, is only one possible figure for memory-permeated time, memorial time, in Stevenson’s poetry. She borrows the figure of a lens from optics in the poem “Arioso Dolente,” in which a musical passage works its miracle of time-bending, as a lens bends light, that equally impalpable, invisible, unthinkable reality. It is the third movement (introduction to the fugue) of Beethoven’s piano sonata, Opus 110, as she tells us in an end note. The poem begins with her mother and will shift as well to her grandmother, but it is her father who provides the music.

A father, who ran downstairs as I practised the piano;

barefooted, buttoning his shirt, he shouted, ‘G,

D-natural, C-flat! Dolente, arioso.

Put all the griefs of the world into that change of key.’

As the poem progresses, weaving between past and present tenses, we discover that we are looking at a (real and literary) snapshot, a photograph in which the mother sits on the side with the poet’s sister in her lap, near the grandmother brooding over, perhaps, another summer in 1890 or 1891, as she crochets “stitches in the tea-brown blanket.” It is now in the picture, but the girl (out of the frame) playing the piano is also the poet in her now identified with the other, earlier, by music, by the lyric poem; and she has in fact become a grandmother, dedicating the poem to her grandchildren, “when they become grandparents,” so the genealogical span of the poem links three or four centuries.

The nows are identified, and yet, and yet . . . Human repetition is always identity with difference. The poet wonders why the people in her photograph seem so placid. Her mother seems not to know that “cancer filched her voice, then cut her throat.” Her father cannot hear her warning, “One day, Steve, two of your well-taught daughters / will be deaf.” Her grandmother is unaware that she will have a stroke and die “paralysed—dumb.”

Consciousness walks on tiptoe through what happens.

So much is felt, so little of it said.

But ours is the breath on which the past depends.

‘What happened’ is what the living teach the dead,

who, smilingly lost to their lost concerns,

in grey on grey,

are all of them deaf, blind, unburdened

by today.

Silence weighs on the musical family, but all they hear is Beethoven’s introduction to the fugue, “all the griefs of the world in that change of key.” And the poem ends with the figure of the lens that took the poetic photograph:


As if our recording selves, our mortal identities,

could be cupped in a concave universe or lens,

ageless in all ages, cleansed of memories,

not minding that meaningful genealogy extends

no further than mind’s flash images reach back.

As for what happens next,

let all the griefs of the world

find keys for that.

The image of a lens occurs as well in the poem “Meniscus,” a playful meditation on the semantic field of that word. The first two stanzas link the lentils of the new moon and lens of the eye.

The moon at its two extremes,

promise and reminiscence,

future and past succeeding each other,

the rim of a continuous event.


These eyes which contain the moon

in the suspect lens of an existence,

guiding it from crescent to crescent

as from mirror to distorting mirror.

The human mind tends to make infinite, unbounded things “compact” (to borrow imprecisely a term from topology), finite and bounded. The Euclidean plane, stretching off in all directions, can be made compact by a variety of constructions. We can impose a system of coordinates on it, two axes or number lines at right angles to each other, assign a pair of numbers to each point, and mark off lattice points—points whose two numbers are integers. Then by a clever mathematical sleight of hand we identify all the lattice points with only four: (0,0), (0,1), (1,1), and (1,0): this identification folds the plane in on itself like a vast exercise in origami, and we have a nice little square enfolding all the points of the plane, “all the griefs of the world in that change of key.”

Another strategy is to identify the plane with a disc without its boundary circle by a special kind of map: uniform distances on the plane, farther and farther from the origin (0,0) are assigned smaller and smaller intervals on the disc farther and farther from the center, as one approaches but never reaches the edge of the edgeless disc. These strategies sound fancy, but really they correspond to two ordinary habits of the human mind (and eye). Stevenson manages to evoke both compactifying strategies in the first two stanzas of her poem. The ongoing, endless circuits of the moon are mapped onto two of the moon’s four phases. And the endless, ongoing sky is mapped onto the lens of the human eye, which is a figure not only for perception but also for memory. To reverse Donne’s famous line, we make one Everywhere (and Everywhen) a little room.

The perfect repetition of a musical or poetic line is a way to bring back the past exactly as it was and in a sense embodied: visible, audible, palpable in the hands of the musician. Memories are imprecise and conceptual, faded not lived; the experience of an art work corrects these limitations. So does the apprehension of a ghost, and so too do dreams where the encounter with revenants most often occurs. Thus dreams—which typically also offer rooms or landscapes in which the repeated, beloved past can be enacted—are promising topoi for the poet. The history of literature is studded with dream-visions, and Stevenson has added a number of her own to the canon, including the long, Dantesque “Lament for the Makers,” in her most recent book, Stone Milk.[3]

The poem “Dreaming of the Dead” is addressed to her friend Anne Pennington, still alive in the dream at the foot of a spiral staircase. It begins in loose, half-rhymed terza rima.

I believe, but what is belief?


I receive the forbidden dead.

They appear in the mirrors of asleep

To accuse or be comforted.

So her friend, “retaining in face and shape / shifting lineaments of alive,” arrives as an apparition.

Your face at the foot of a flight

Of wrought-iron, circular stairs.

I am climbing alone in the night


Among stabbing, unmerciful flares.

Oh, I am what I see and know,

But no other solid thing’s there


Except for the terrible glow

Of your face and its quiet belief,

Light wood ash falling like snow


On my weaker grief.

However, in Stevenson’s unsettling poems the identification of nows doesn’t just make the departed (parents, lovers, friends, poets) present; it also has the converse effect of making the poet’s present then. The embodiment of the past leads to a disembodiment, an estrangement, of the present. Stevenson makes the point in her epigram “Haunted.”

It’s not when you walk through my sleep

That I’m haunted most.

I am also alive where you were.

And my own ghost.

And here is the last stanza of “A Marriage,” where she recalls the day that her mother let her father know that she was dying. The poem ends on the evening of that day when they sat together on the porch of the house that is still there, in the thoughts of the daughter-poet who is still there, though they are not.

It is now, and it never was now. Like every experience

Of being entirely here, yet really not being.

They couldn’t imagine the future that I am seeing,

For all his philosophy and all her common sense.

A number of Stevenson’s poems are dedicated to her friend the poet Frances Horovitz, who died at the age of forty-five after a long illness. The poem “The Fiction Makers” reviews the literati who set the stage for both of them in their youth, “the wrecked elect, / the ruined few,” all of whom in different eras wanted to believe that they were the avant-garde, the moderns.

. . . that story we were all at the end of

and couldn’t begin—

we thought we were living now

but we were living then.

The poem, running through Hemingway and “the bullfight set” at the Café Iruña, Pound and his circle, Bloomsbury, Isherwood and Auden in Berlin, Dylan Thomas in Soho, Berryman in Iowa, ends with Anne and Frances.

Here is a table with glasses,

ribbed cages tipped back,

or turned on a hinge to each other

to talk, to talk,

mouths that are drinking or smiling

or quoting some book,

or laughing out laughter as candletongues

lick at the dark.

So bright is this fiction

forever becoming its end,

we think we are laughing now,

but we are laughing then.

These people in the café, are they alive or dead? The synecdoche of “ribbed cages tipped back” is rather macabre, and the laughter that becomes “candletongues” transforms their talking heads into jack-o’-lanterns, the American mascots of All Hallows, Halloween, a Christianized version of the Celtic festival Samhain, the time of year when ghosts are most likely to mingle with the living. Our gift of memory reminds us that others will remember us later, when we will have shuffled off the mortal coil that garlands our ribcage, and speak only in candletongues.

Anne Stevenson and her husband Peter Lucas often quit their townhouse in Durham for their seventeenth-century cottage in Cwm Nantcol, Wales. Indeed, the haunting photograph by David Newbould on the cover of Poems 1955–2005 is entitled “Cwm Nantcol,” so that place must have a particularly strong claim on the poet. The first stanza of “The Unaccommodated,” second poem in the section entitled Poems from Cwm Nantcol, could be an ekphrasis for that photograph.

Like winter in the hills, the heft of their

lingering, still unburied shadows

in the wind’s hoarse uprush

out of heaps of rock they lived in.

Millennia later,

houses rise stone by stone, neighbour

by aching neighbour; impenitent webs of wall

from the haunted spills.

But that rather naturalistic interpretation of the first stanza, while not inaccurate, must be revised in the “rushlight” of the following two, where the shadows prove to be shades, the shades of the long-forgotten inhabitants of the stone houses. The imagery of animated skeletons and talking candle flames returns.

Sickness in the dark they lived in.

Candlelight hoarding sweet secrets

in the mice’s corners.

Girls giving birth by rushlight.

The same fires set by the dead

in a theatre of cheekbones and foreheads;

a hand through the night, stitching cloth

with a stiff thread.

Stiff from cold, or stiff from rigor mortis? And what do we do all day long, we talkative living beings—farmers and poets, mothers and fathers, critics and photographers—except animate our skeletons and waggle our tongues? Among other tasks, we keep the dead alive by recalling our kinship with them, our common language, neither Welsh nor English, but the speech that groaning firewood yields up, like the bleeding, speaking tree in Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser.

Just as constant, the cold they live in,

each minute paid down on an open Bible

one by one by one

in hard brass grudged by the pendulum.

Firelight is the lurch of a hummed,

lambent, discontinuous meditation,

nimbus of their voices and table talk.

Flick off the mains and you’ll be them.

Reading the old poets, turning off the electric lights and listening to the souls of the house as it settles and breathes, we are also alive where they were and our own ghosts; we think we are laughing, reading, listening now, but we are laughing, reading, listening then as well. So the poet brings time around, into the circle or onto the lens of the poem, and we are lucky to sit with her by the fireplace in a stone house under Moelfre and listen as the wind sings in the chimney. Here I give the poet the last word, with the poem “The Wind, the Sun and the Moon.”

For weeks the wind has been talking to us,

Swearing, imploring, singing like a person.

Not a person, more the noise a being might make

Searching for a body and a name. The sun

In its polished aurora rises late, then dazzles

Our eyes, and days, pacing a bronze horizon

To a mauve bed in the sea. Light kindles the hills,

Though in the long shadow of Moelfre, winter

Won’t unshackle the dead house by the marsh.

Putting these words on paper after sunset

Alters the length and asperity of night.

By the fire, when the wind pauses, little is said.

Every phrase we unfold stands upright. Outside,

The visible cold, the therapy of moonlight.

[1] Laws and Symmetry (Oxford, 1990).

[2] Poems 1955–2005 (Tarset, Northumberland, 2005).

[3] Stone Milk (Tarset, Northumberland, 2008).