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Mnemosyne’s Tango: Poetry, Film, and the Dance of Memory

Poetry and art-house film share a fascination with memory. Some of the most interesting work in either genre affects us like the first bite of Proust’s madeleine – transporting us into a world that feels at once strange and familiar, like recalling a moment of childhood.

There is another world, and it is this one.
– Attributed to Paul Éluard

The relationship between art and memory has long been a family affair, since Mnemosyne is the mother of the Muses. In fact, some of the earliest uses of both poetry and film were for recording cultural history – either by compressing an epic tale into alliteration and rhyme to facilitate memorisation, or by compressing light and sound into physical media. Compression leads to portability and potency, but also imposes unique constraints, which have evolved into our current understanding of the distinct artistic possibilities of each discipline.

In format, the auditory and visual natures of film and poetry are clearly different. Yet a flickering screen can be viewed like a page, and a poem can be read like a script. The cæsura, line break, and stanza break in poetry mirror film’s range of visual transitions. Clearly, they have some fundamental moves in common. How, then, does the poetryfilm best come together to fascinate, transport, and change us?

The success of the film-poem collaboration lies in the mnemonic dance between the genres. The dance floor is not built upon what is depicted, but what is evoked. While the mimetic act is symbolic – a sun is described in a poem, and a sun appears in the film – the mnemonic dance performs the inherent strengths of each genre, collaborating with the same sensitivity, synchronicity, and passion as a tango duet.

Consider, for example, the effect of the flickering smash cuts at the end of Alastair Cook’s poetryfilm of Bernard and Cerinthe by Linda France.* The effect is nearly synæsthetic – the flash of a face soon crescendos into a fleeting moment in which we can almost smell, taste, touch the botanic-erotic longing. Had the filmmaker depicted the nouns of the poem literally – »lips«, »seeds«, »buttocks«, or even the honeywort flower itself – the poetryfilm would not have transported us so effectively.

The quick smash cut has become a popular technique for this reason – echoing the fragmentary nature of memory itself, evoking something indistinct over the textures of the poem. At the opposite end of the timescale, an equally effective technique is the slow dissolve – be it an actual cross-fade or the evolution of organic forms through time-lapse, hyper-lapse, or progressive visual technique. The reduction of images into abstract patterns, and the gradual revelation of concrete forms, again mirrors the act of remembering.

Individual recall is both creative and destructive. Ask three people to describe the same event, and you will get three different stories. The inclusion or omission of detail, as it is strained through filters of consciousness, alters truth at the moment of access. Old memories are replaced with new tales, overwriting themselves in the midst of their self-making. Indeed, what many describe after a near-death experience – their life flashing before their eyes – might be a bit like a private screening of poetryfilm.

On a social scale, the mnemonic dance is both defiant and affirming: Defiant in the ways that art-house film protests the contrivances of Hollywood, and the poem takes a stand against marketing-speak; affirming because the virtuous cycle is this: existence is a reason to make art, and art is a reason to exist. First and always, though, it must give us a nibble of the madeleine.

* Alastair Cook/Linda France: Bernard and Cerinthe. UK 2013, 3:12.

About the Author

Robert Peake is a British-American poet living near London. He created the Transatlantic Poetry on Air reading series. His debut full-length collection The Knowledge is now available from Nine Arches Press. He creates poetryfilms in collaboration with his wife, the composer and pianist Valerie Kampmeier. Their work has screened at festivals in Berlin, London, Athens, and Miami, and their collaboration »Buttons« won the 2014 Southbank Centre »Shot Through the Heart« poetryfilm competition in the children’s category.



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