Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, May 09, 2008

The paradox of memory -- that we remember so intensely, that an unexpected smell can bring back a long-gone milieu, whole and complete; and yet our memories are so faulty. It is foolish to trust one’s memory in the details. I do it all the time.

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At the college reunion last October, at the poetry reading in honor of two creative writing teachers who have been there for more than 25 years, I recited Leigh Hunt’s poem “Abou Ben Adhem.” I had memorized it in honor of my grandpa, who had had to memorize it to join the DKE fraternity in the 1920s. My freshman year Grandpa had phoned the Dekes and told them that his grandson was at the university. A representative of the frat invited me for a chat. I was a hippie-punk bohemian, and the Dekes appeared to be one of the more buttoned-up frats. The frat rep knew that I had no interest in joining, and I knew he had no interest in me, but we went through the interview in honor of my grandpa, this friendly young guy
’s brother Deke from a cohort 55 years before. I learned of “Abou Ben Adhem” years later, having read it in a ’50s anthology of “popular poetry” that I’d picked up at a rummage sale for pennies. One summer day Grandpa started reciting it; I recognized it and asked why he knew it. I memorized it to please him, and then years later set it to music when I was working on an album about my family.

So at the reading in honor of my (modernist) poetry prof, I had it in memory and recited it. My friend L- had come for the reunion too, and we had bumped into each other during some downtime, and he had tagged along to the reading. L- had lived in Egypt and Mauritania, and was fluent in both of those dialects of Arabic. He told me that “ben Adhem” meant “son of Adam” -- in other words, “human,” specifically, “male human,” and that in Egypt people called strangers “beni Adem” in order to get their attention, in the same way we might holler at a stranger, “Dude, watch out for that falling piano!” I felt silly for not realizing what the words meant --
“ben” is a surname prefix in Jewish names too; I should have known it and was happy to learn it.

Leigh Hunt had been a friend of Keats and Shelley’s. Bicycling to work this (Thursday) morning, I cried while reciting the poem to myself.

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold: -
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said
"What writest thou?" -The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.

My grandpa’s younger brother had been a Deke with him, two years behind him; Uncle John had then been a frat brother with Jerry Ford, who was a year or two younger still. Uncle John died my freshman year. He was a soft-spoken guy with a dry sense of humor, much quieter than my grandpa, his louder, wilder older brother. He never married and moved away to Minneapolis as a young man, coming to visit most years. He came home to Kalamazoo to die. The last time I saw him, in the hospital, he was bedridden, and he said to me, quietly, “Of course I’d be happy if you were to join the Dekes.” And then he smiled. “But I imagine my brother may have told you all about it already.”

-- DKE House, Ann Arbor

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