I Remember

By Shane Allison

Future Tense Books
January 2012

Reviewed by Renée E. D'Aoust


Dear Shane Allison,

It's a bold move to respond to Joe Brainard's I Remember by writing Shane Allison's I Remember, but you've done it. Taken on a classic. Yet there is more: you respond in full to Brainard, continue his story, write your own, and create a new conversation.

You invite the reader into a conversation so fully that I become enamored of your experience—all the turbulent, life changing, exhilarating, and wrenching events you report without commenting on the awfulness or joyfulness of any of it. You invite me in so completely that I want to tell you, to tell everyone, all the things I remember because of your remembering. I want to continue the conversation, the remembering.

You write through the lyric repetition of the statement "I remember," which is interrupted sporadically by interjections that do not include the word "remember"; for example: "They told me they heard our conversation."

Like you, "I remember how pissed I was when I found out River Phoenix died at an L.A. nightclub." But just when I'm reveling in that memory, I read next that you "remember finding a hair on a cooked piece of pig feet." That you then "remember hating the taste of broccoli." And that you also ate your "grandmama's banana pudding." I have no idea what you think of your grandmama's cooking. How it tastes. On the other hand, because of these living memories, your statements, I feel as if I taste your food right along with you:

I remember cheesecake with walnuts.

I remember Aunt Tillie's cold slaw.

So what does River Phoenix have to do with pig's feet and broccoli or, for that matter, banana pudding? Nothing and everything, you tell us. There's a connection because of the placement of the lines, surely, but you mean something deeper.

You mean that one memory leads to another until memories become a waterfall of meaning and non-meaning. The past blurs, yet the past becomes clearer, too, because of the simple statements you make and do not explain. Your lyric is beyond showing or telling; it's beyond any bullshit adage of the writing classroom. I remember is repeated so expertly that the experience of memory occurs in the present rather than in the past. These memories are both culturally specific—River Phoenix's death—and personally important—pig's feet.

I remember reading in his book that Joe Brainard ate "great banana cake" from a "dime store" (not made by his grandma). Did you eat your grandma's banana pudding before or after reading Brainard? Or did you remember eating that cake while reading Brainard thus inspiring you to write your own I Remember? One could become gloriously lost in the literary connections and allusions between you and Brainard. What's more important, though, is the depth of meaning, the weight, these connections bring to your recollections:

I remember writing a poem about Matthew Santoni after reading in Out Magazine about how he killed a boy after being tired of being bullied. He wrote me a letter from prison telling me he cried when he read my poem.

I remember when he sent me a picture of himself.

I remember trying to make my own chapbook.

What's more important is the way you extend Brainard's way of seeing. Like Brainard, you are gifted with clear sight, or cursed to remember clearly and collectively, and you record such obviously clear recollections with grace. What a teacher may assign as a list poem, a useful exercise, becomes in your hands a rollercoaster of layered, intimate meanings full of hallucinatory pauses and lustful encounters and sweet creativity:

I remember thinking I should grab the most important thing, which was my backpack filled with poems.

 Your memoir is an exploration of your coming-of-age, but it's also a memoir of a cultural coming-of-age. The repetition of beginning almost all lines with "I remember" creates a sphere where the personal intersects with the public. A lyric voice—I remember—joyfully slams against a methodical voice—I remember. The reader joins you in that space between those lines as you turn the lens of your own surprise onto the hateful assumptions of those out to hurt you:

I remember walking into the Christopher Street bookstore and realizing that it wasn't a bookstore at all.

I remember the homophobic thugs that cruised the booths looking for gay men to bash.

I know about your guts because I've read parts of your life. Some of your guts, I'd say, come from defending your sexuality in a society that bashes it. You take Joe Brainard's sexual awakening further. Brainard writes:

I remember early sexual experiences and rubbery knees. I'm sure sex is much better now but I do miss rubbery knees.

You include knees in sexual awakening, too, but it's harder hitting than Brainard's recollections of the '40s and '50s, more of our time:

I remember blowing a guy in the bathroom. He said, "you better be able to get off your knees if someone walks in."

I'd say you are bearing witness to your life, but that almost seems trite as I'm convinced you are doing something more:

I remember Mr. Allen carrying a ruler around with him as he patrolled the school hallways.

I remember writing a paper in pink ink and he gave me a zero and told me to re-write the paper in either blue or black ink.

You speak to the way rules infect creativity, make borders on expression, allow expression only in "blue or black ink"—not pink.

I suspect that you don't need me to tell you how bold you've been. Still, I'm telling you because I admire your gutsy book.

Thank you for finding your way back, your way forward, to write in pink.

With admiration,

Renée E. D'Aoust