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This review is taken from PN Review 271, Volume 49 Number 5, May - June 2023.

Cover of Dear Memory
Evan JonesDear Memory, Victoria Chang, (Milkweed Editions) $25; Generations: A Memoir, Lucille Clifton (NYRB Classics) $14.95; Music, Late and Soon, Robyn Sarah (Biblioasis) $18.95
Myth and Memory

What we know of ancient Homer is myth and supposition, the result of texts and images created centuries after he was meant to have lived. And coming forward in time doesn’t mean that we understand someone like Shakespeare any better. In Ben Jonson, we find that Shakespeare knew ‘small Latine and lesse Greeke’. It was Herodotus who guessed that Homer lived 400 years before his Histories. Yet the small secrets that sneak out of the work, impossible to verify, are how we hold on to the image of poets – there is Homer in blind Demodocus, performing at the Phaikaian banquet for Odysseus. And – though there are other examples – Autolycus, the roguish peddler of ballads in The Winter’s Tale, holds great appeal as a stand-in for Shakespeare: ‘he haunts / wakes, fairs and bear-baitings’. About right for a bard.

That poets create the myths of their own lives, is something we assume they have always done. When a poet’s memoir appears, we might look for the tricks and details that help us understand that myth better, filling in background that we traditionally trusted the poems to do, enlightening or even contradicting it. Largely, each of these three books might best be thought of as Künstlerschriften: poets on art and life, sharing secrets and ideals. Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory posits questions about memory and family history that are impossible to answer decades after an ancestor’s passing. Like Anne Carson’s Nox, the book assembles documents – photos, testimony, ...


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