Joe Brainard’s I Remember

Joe Brainard, Merry Christmas, n.d.

Last month, I read Georges Perec’s I Remember, an unsorted list of personal recollections, each prefaced with the title phrase. Perec’s book came to me before I found out that he’d borrowed the concept (as so many others have since) from the Tulsa-born, New York-based visual artist and writer Joe Brainard. So I bought a copy of Brainard’s original. It’s longer than Perec’s: 170+ pages of sentences and paragraphs, over a thousand “I remembers.” I thought it would become a slog. It didn’t.

The novelist Paul Auster, who wrote the introduction for the Notting Hill edition, is an almost obsessive Brainard devotee, having reread I Remember every few years. Auster inventories the I remembers by theme. By Auster’s count, Brainard remembers family (70 entries), food (100), clothes (90+), pop culture (100+), school and church (around 100), the body (100+), dreams, daydreams, fantasies (70+), holidays (50), objects (130+), sex (50+), jokes and common expressions (40+), friends and acquaintances (90+), autobiographical fragments (20), insights and confessions (40), and “musings” (30+).

Brainard wrote at the apogee of postwar confessional poetry, but, Auster observes, while “Brainard confesses…he does not rant, and he has no interest in mythologizing his own life… He begins and ends small, but the cumulative force of so many small, exquisitely rendered observations turns his book into something great…”

Joe Brainard, Red Poppies and Butterflies, 1969

The statements comprising I remember are not – or not only – random memories. While Brainard’s conceit can seem scattershot, from his pointillist technique emerges a cohesive whole. Patterned repetition (typical as well of his collages and assemblages) possesses enormous lyric power: think of Whitman, Ginsburg or, for that matter, the Bible’s lists of tribes and lineages in Genesis and commandments in Leviticus.

At first, though, the execution does seem random. Brainard will stick with a topic for three or seven entries, then switch to something else, returning a dozen pages later to the abandoned theme. The effect is like that of Italo Calvino’s Cities, with its chapter titles repeated and interleaved. Reading Calvino years ago, I reached for an X-Acto knife, meaning to slice the book into its parts and reassemble it into a cohesive whole. Half-believing that books are ensouled, I couldn’t do it. Auster seems to have given into a similar desire for indexed order. It must have taken him hours.

Brainard had a singular strength: he was shameless. I don’t mean that he was intentionally provocative or gratuitously shocking. I mean that he had surmounted his shame. Brainard openly and un- self-consciously remembers moments most of us would still find mildly discomfiting to talk about casually:

I remember slipping underwear into the wash at the last minute (wet dreams) when my mother wasn’t looking

I remember getting erections at school and the bell rings and how handy zipper notebooks were.

I remember thinking that my mother and father were ugly naked.

Brainard remembers getting blown for the first time but running to the bathroom because he confused the imminence of a cum with the need to piss. He remembers leaving a “stinker” in the toilet and worrying that the next guy to use the bathroom would reel from the odor and know that he’d caused it. He remembers the chair where he smeared his boogers as a small child. He remembers embarrassing first encounters with girls and then boys until coming out as a young man in his 20s (this in the early 60s). For Brainard, these are small incidents in a life, scattered among all the other small incidents in a life as if to say it’s no big deal. No need to obsess over any of this. No need to hide it, either.

Such declarations are scattered throughout the collection, followed by brief observations about cotton candy, ashtrays, and Dinah Shore’s teeth. What holds it together?

Auster knows the answer: he writes that Brainard’s work

dwells with great focus on the sensuous details of somatic life (what it feels like to have your hair cut in a barber shop, what it feels like to ‘turn around and around real fast until you can’t stand up,’ to hear water swishing around in the stomach for the first time and think you might have a tumor.

I Remember is life as heard, seen, smelled, touched and tasted. Brainard trusts his senses. So do I.

Most of us never become this comfortable in our own skins. Despite living (and creating) a culture of relentless personal exposure and revelation, we maintain a carefully curated reserve. We recoil from describing ourselves in full detail, even privately. It is a good thing, of course, to segregate the personal and professional, and to distinguish between close friends on the one hand and the larger world of strangers and acquaintances. But some of our self-censorship creeps up from the shame that’s got its claws into our heels, trailing behind us from childhood through senescence like a willful and heavy shadow.

Brainard freed himself from that shadow. He was a liberated man.

Finishing with the book I turned to the afterword, written by Brainard’s lifelong friend, the poet Ron Padgett’s. Finishing with Padgett’s own recollections, I went in search of his poems, which I’ve never read. At the Poetry Foundation, I found “How to Be Perfect.” It too is a list, of the kind that parents give their kids, mostly in the middle of a passive-aggressive rant, but occasionally, as here, in a loving guide to living.

It consists of one hundred statements. These are the first:

Get some sleep.

Don’t give advice.

Take care of your teeth and gums.

Don’t be afraid of anything beyond your control. Don’t be afraid, for instance, that the building will collapse as you sleep, or that someone you love will suddenly drop dead.

Eat an orange every morning.

Be friendly. It will help make you happy.

Raise your pulse rate to 120 beats per minute for 20 straight minutes four or five times a week doing anything you enjoy.

Padgett covers loyalty and sex. He gives advice on how to self-educate, what to drink (water) and how to choose clothes. As in Brainard’s longer list, all sentences are equal and matter-of-fact.

And why not? Roiling with emotional turmoil, our minds make no distinction between consequential historical events and acute private embarrassments. Stress in our private lives calls upon the same synapses and neurons as great spiritual struggles. All memories, whether displayed in the brightly-lit windows of shared stories or hidden in the mind’s lockboxes, cellars and closets, have the same capacity to wound, to heal and to uplift.

Bless Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett, two generous prophets of the mundane.

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