I recently read a wonderful book called I Remember by Joe Brainard. Dan Chiasson, writing about Brainard recently on the New Yorker’s blog, called it “one of the twenty or so most important American autobiographies.” But it’s probably unlike any autobiography you’ve ever read. Indeed, it’s essentially a book-length prose poem, composed of snippets of Brainard’s memories, all of which begin with “I remember . . . .” It’s an ingenious way to craft a type of memoir—perhaps a more honest way to do so as well. Because most of my memories of childhood come in shards like these—stolen moments, stray memories, vivid or not-so-vivid fragments, all of which might add up to a portrait of a childhood, a life, a person.
Brainard was born in 1941, in Arkansas, but he grew up in Tulsa, before moving to New York as a young man, like many an aspiring artist. He was a painter and visual artist mainly, but he’s also famous for his poetry, and especially for I Remember. Recently, The Library of America published The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard—a true sign that he’s now a part of the canon of great American writers. Most of that reputation rests on I Remember. Really, it’s an ingenious, wholly original book. Though it doesn’t seem original, does it? “I remember” is such a common phrase, a common way to reminisce. But Brainard’s book is not just slapdash and haphazard. It’s artfully constructed, and, as I said, forms a kind of portrait of the artist as a child and young man.
The format is so addictive that I’ve started to try my own hand at it. Sure, it can’t compare to Brainard’s, but as an exercise it has already spurred my memory to conjure images and moments that are floating around in my brain, waiting to be pinned down on the page. I can’t imagine writing a standard narrative memoir—my life is just not interesting enough for that, and besides, writing such a book holds no interest for me (and probably not for readers either!). But something like I Remember—well, it’s fun, and seems more honest.
Here are some snippets of what I’ve come up with so far. I think I’ll keep a running “I Remember” document now, as long as these stray memories pop into my head .
I remember Dean and Ollie, nurses at Dr. Trice’s office. Dean was skinny, Ollie was fat. I remember that when Dean gave me a shot, it hurt. When Ollie gave me a shot, it still hurt, but it hurt less.
I remember Dr. Trice’s cold hands.
I remember getting a lollipop after each doctor’s appointment.
I remember always being worried about having to get a shot whenever I went to the doctor. Usually I had reason to worry.
I remember getting a shot once, when I was ten, right before a surgery to have a (benign) cyst removed. The shot hurt so bad that I’ve never forgotten what was on the hospital TV at the time—The Miracle Worker, the one starring Melissa Gilbert.
I remember Little House in the Prairie. I remember being afraid of Nellie because she was so mean. I remember the little girl who played Carrie falling down the hill in the opening credits. I remember Mary going blind and being traumatized. I remember being envious of the Olson kids because they could freely raid the candy jars of the general store.
I remember spending most of my allowance on candy.
I remember walking to Mr. Qwik to buy candy. I went for hard stuff, not candy bars—jawbreakers, Red Hots, Gobstoppers, Sweet Tarts, Spree, Jolly Ranchers.
I remember going to the dentist once and having five cavities.
I remember Mom called Mr. Qwik “Mr. Pits,” because she thought it was the pits.
I remember that they sold potato logs at the “hot food” counter at Mr. Qwik. I remember our neighbor Jimmy always bought and ate them. I thought they looked disgusting.
I remember that Mr. Qwik sold porn magazines, and I could see the tops of them peeping out from behind the other magazines. I remember never having the nerve to look at them.