Kay Mullen
It's About Time Writers
   the writer's craft

Memory, Mapping and Imagination

Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series, Seattle, WA.,
Thursday April 12, 2007

I want to share briefly some thoughts about Memory, Mapping and Imagination as they relate to my book, A Long Remembering: Return to Vietnam: why and how the poems came to be written.   While this is a craft talk and not a reading, I will include several short poems as examples of points I want to make about this topic. 

My book contains poems around the experience of returning to Vietnam in 2000 with 15 young adoptees and their parents twenty five years after the end of the war in 1975.  These young people were returning for the first time to their homeland.  Most were infants or toddlers when they left Vietnam.  This was a first trip for parents.  I was among this group of 35, as was my husband, AJ, and our 26 year old son, Timothy.  It was this trip that gave these young adoptees the memories they needed to discover who they were, where they came from, what the future might hold for them.   It was the task of this journey back to Vietnam to restore some of those lost memories, to support these young people in their search for identity. 

I realized the significance of memory as we traveled.  I wanted to know what poets had to say about it.  Because of time constraints I will mention only two.  Jane Hirshfield, in her book, Nine Gates, speaks of poetry as a "Vessel of Remembrance."  She says that without the power of memory, creativity as it flows without end from the source of our being, there would be nothing to connect one moment to the next.  Poetry is language put into forms of remembrance.  Without memory, the world would have no way to carry forward all that has gone before."   Hirshfield goes on to say,  "We peer into the new poem with the old hope: that we might find there a few words to illumine more widely our passage through the dark woods and brightly lit cities of this fleeting, time-bound world.  And the art of poetry remains a daughter of Remembranceof our wish to feel joined to some fabric that both gives meaning to and is made meaningful by the part of it we are." (p. 177)

Another poet, Peter Davison, says in his forward to Breathing Room, "to remember is to keep things that have already happened from siding into oblivion."  Had these young people not returned to Vietnam, the memories might well have "slid into oblivion."  They may never have known the stories of those early months and years of their lives, nor the people and places that helped form who they were.  By returning to their orphanages and talking with those who remembered them, by understanding more fully their people, their land and culture, the memories were restored and new ones were created throughout the trip.
This book, A Long Remembering: Return to Vietnam,  is very much a vessel of remembrance.  In writing these poems I hoped to create memories for our adopted son, but also for the other young adoptees and their parents.  Even though each person in that group created memories of their own, poems held in memory can sustain us when times are difficult and also offer the discovery of poetry's power.  Memories connect us to one another.  We have all known that sense of belonging and acceptance when others have listened to our experiences.

These young adults were searching for meaning in their lives.  They were searching for their identity.  They grieved, and although their grief had been suppressed, it was a loss they carried through the years. Although they were adopted into loving families, they grieved for the loss of their homeland, their people, their culture and history.  It was important to restore these memories and to reconnect moments of the past, to piece together the past so that the future could once again have meaning.   An example of how this grief had been suppressed and began to surface shortly after we arrived, can be seen in this poem.  (p. 13)

                             First Meal in Vietnam

On the day of arrival, we gather for our first meal
in Ho Chi Minh city: ginger rice, shrimp cakes
and bean sprouts, sesame asparagus, a treat
of sweet dragon fruit.  Without warning, one
young man bends his shoulders, bursts into sobs
as if some long buried ache suddenly awakened
to pain.  Who are his parents, why did they leave
him, how can he thread his life, stitch his future
with strong ties and peace?  For a moment he
seems separated from the people in the room.
He knows he is free to express his fears at what
he may find, what he has lost.  Tears fall
from many faces.  Twenty-five years of unknowns
begin to unravel here at this long table.  He
cannot yet put into words what he wants to say.
Some words may never be spoken.

In one of his lectures at PLU, Kent Meyers said, "We may need to break our memories down into manageable, connected segments that allow us to concentrate and distill them in a meaningful way."  This was my task as I returned from Vietnam.  It was at least two years after the trip ended that I began to write the poems using a few notes I had taken and the itinerary listing each days events.   My memory served me well.  Details came back to me with seemingly little effort mainly I believe because these were once-in-a lifetime experiences, very vivid and memorable.  I began to break down the memories into segments as Meyers suggested and think about ways to map the experiences.  I also did a good deal of research around these poems.  Mapping a poem, as I understand it, means to look at the poem's geography or landscape...to look at the physical, emotional, aesthetic, intellectual and linguistic aspects of a poem.  Mapping includes words, word associations, phrases, facts, objects, ideas and so on. 

One example of Mapping a poem came from a visit to a lacquer factory:  the circumstances, remembering words and phrases to recreate the event, what it meant in terms of the men working there, of the facets that made up the process.  So I came up with words that grounded the poem in terms of place and facts, in terms of time and materials and in terms of a certain meaning invested in the young men there and what it meant in metaphorical terms. 

I like to think of mapping a poem a little like breaking bread, of naming and gathering the ingredients and putting them together to create something new.  As with the baking of bread, I had to mix and knead the poem's ingredients, let the poem, like dough sit a while, and return to it, until, like bread, it is ready to be placed in the oven, and like a poem, in the heat of the imagination so that eventually I would have that loaf, that poem I was creating.  What happens in the oven baking bread is as mysterious as what happens when a poem is being created.  No one can explain transformation; how dough becomes bread nor how the imagination creates a poem.  It is the great mystery of baking and of the power of poetry.

I'll read a poem about an experience in Vietnam.  I researched and mapped the essentials of the experience.   (p. 24) 

                             The Lacquer Factory

In Hue, twelve young men sit
at long tables against a wall.
They neither look up nor smile,
intent on laborious lacquer
techniques.  Their hands
blackened with rosin,
apply as many as twelve times
to sanded and polished wood.
It is the mother-of-pearl inlay,
the gold dust and eggshell
that yields the final shine.

The work goes on where fans
spread heat and fumes.
Men paint and brush, cut
and seal when the inset
is primed.  A gleam of oil
on their hands reflects the onyx
                     displays on the lacquer-ware
shelves.  Their sweaty faces
mirror the gloss of every piece.

These young men took great pride in the difficult work they were doing.  They seemed to have created for themselves both an inner and outer accomplishment as they bent to the work they knew would bring satisfaction to themselves and to many others. 

The following poem comes out of my imagination.  Because our son had no knowledge of his parents, I wanted to create imaginary parents so that he would have a sense of how much he was loved, how they wanted him safe at all costs.  He grew up with this awareness.  So with the understanding I had about Vietnamese men and women, about the war and circumstances at the end of it, I created an imaginary father and mother.  This is the poem about his Vietnamese father.  (p. 34)

A Father's Legacy

At twenty-six he falls
on the leaf-soaked jungle,
dies inching along on his belly.

He takes a scrap of paper
from his jacket.  A sliver of light
through the forest is all he needs.
He pulls the wedding picture from
his pocket, a thumb-print
of blood on a note to his child;
If I don't return, if I'm not there
to see you
for the first time,
when you speak first words,
when you grow
to be the best you can,
I'll be in your dreams,
in your words, your flesh. 
My child,
don't grieve for me,
believe in yourself.
Have nothing to do
with war.

In conclusion, as Hirshfield says, poetry is a vessel of remembrance.  Memories give us a sense of identity.  They offer healing and insights.  They connect us to the past and to one another so we can move with greater confidence into the future.  Mapping poems gets the poet in touch with the poem's essentials: to know the geography of the poem, where it is leading, where it might take us.  The task of the Imagination  is to transform in some mysterious way, to be in touch with the creative energy and power of a poem.

I'd like to end with a quote from the poet, Muriel Ruykeyser:  "I don't believe that poetry can save the world.  I do believe that the forces in us wish to share something of our experience by turning it into something and giving it to somebody:  that is poetry.  That is some kind of saving thing, and as far as my life is concerned, poetry has saved me again and again."  Perhaps these poems will offer some "saving thing" for the young adult adoptees who traveled so far to gain a greater understanding of themselves and perhaps for the parents and those who read or hear the poems.


Davison, Peter.  "Catches of Breath: A Foreword," in Breathing Room, New
    York: Knopf, 2000, p. ix.. 
Hirshfield, Jane.  Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. New York: Harper,
     1998. pp. 177, 196
Meyers, Kent.  Lecture, Pacific Lutheran University, August, 2006.
Ruykeyser, Muriel, Clement Greenberg, Translator.  Community Archive, Vol. 19,  No. 3, March 1955.

Kay Mullen is a licensed mental health counselor living in Tacoma. Her poems have appeared in a variety of journals including New Works Review, Carquinez Poetry Review, Appalachia,  The Washington Poets Association anthologies, Pontoon and Minotaur.  A Long Remembering: Return to Vietnam was published by Foothills Publishing in September 2006 She received the William Stafford Award in 2002.  Reading venues include Hugo House, Frye Art Museum, Vermont Studio Center, as well as  libraries and book stores in the Greater Seattle area.   Her first book of poems, Let Morning Begin, was published in 2001.  Kay is currently completing an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University. A Long Remembering..was published in 2005..



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