Second Memory

Alycia Pirmohamed and Pratyusha

What else did Barthes write? I cannot decipher you because I do not know how you decipher me. I learn to pull the signified from the mouths of other women who once looked like me. I learn to pour water from one vase into another heirloom. There is the slight residue of before. All of this silvery thread, an antidote. Without learning how to translate the past, I cannot decipher myself and, therefore, I cannot love with clarity.

The heart cannot fill with occasion, the full particulars of a narrative I don’t remember (N. Ramayya).

There are ghosts here. I tried to fall asleep last night, but she wouldn’t let me. The ancestor who plaits my hair with her journey. She is a lime green ghost. What does that mean?

     Descending, she’s also tasting. Out slips her lime green tongue ( B. Kapil)

In 2019, I visited Dar es Salaam and, like fruit growing around the stone, language grew around my grotesquely Western body. There was so much ▒ there among the vines, like desirable, clean knowledge. My first lost language. So much ▒ that I began to think in its mesocarp. In other words, I briefly travelled through time. (In other words, the stone is a portal to a blank space. I think of Diana Khoi Nguyen’s photographic / optic / empty-not-empty loss. So much sound comes from a wide-open mouth: an amaryllis: a tear on the page).

P, I want to tell you exactly how he said it, the graveyard keeper, when he told my father that my grandmother’s grave fell into the river. I know this is a re-narrativisation, unreal and purified, a rearrangement of the dead and the living: an extravagance. I can’t retrieve the words now. Still, believe me, I tasted that river and its current, its taxonomy and tradition. We spent all afternoon looking for that plot of land. Her plot of land. It was once there, and then it was gone.

I love metaphor for its absence-presence. I love metaphor for its carcass, marked by love and love’s descendent, the latter of which must sustain the forty-day journey. Too alike, two alike, they are the source of ritual, of concurrence.

▒  All of it seeped in, all of that lime green.

▒  All of it seeped out, too, right into the basin of the Atlantic ocean, like memories I no longer wanted.

        It is there, in the neighbourhood of experience, that my childhood home is nowhere to be found ( B.R. Belcourt).

I thought I loved these memory-imaginations. Now, I let them go, each sensation slipping off my mind’s skin, into the great sea of deliberation, the machinery that churns out fragments. I am learning to love, better, the inconsistencies of my physical body. The physical scope of my existence. I love how solid a non-memory is. By which I mean I take a face in my hands, examine each mark, and feel myself rejoin with all kinds of desire. You call it a clarity of water, and I think of all the times I glimpsed my own body in the North Saskatchewan River and made a promise to be good at love.

I am hypervisible here. I am the figure that quivers like a childhood toy—a slinky. I dip down into sites of whiteness: I am coiled up, tightened, uncanny, unfitting, almost funny in my strangeness.

I am so sick of being the hypervisible invisible person.

I swear I once knew how to say it fell. 

Barthes writes: “only the lover and the child have a heavy heart.” He writes these in parentheses, enshrining it in its own temple, this heaviness. Love has sat on my tongue like the lychee’s stone: its flesh gradually pulled away around it and a pause. It is also the heaviness of being underwater, the pressure of water over your head. The ebb and flow of the lychee’s flesh mimicking the ebb and flow of the gentle waves that carry you. Loneliness closes over me like the sea, leaving hair adrift. A surge of waves in my eyes.

The habitus of a second memory, the intimacy of touch, the recoiling away from a touch unwelcome or a touch that has made itself unwelcome. In love I think of all this and glimpse my reflection in a knife as I cut garlic. My eyes in a fluid state thinking how does a body withstand this, my eyes in a solid state turning mirror after mirror, ready to cut.

This heaviness now: a longing for a love that is resinous and enveloping but not encountering contingency, not encountering these out-of-body mountains that both reside within and without. This doubling of love, or not of love but of feeling, stops the eyes from being opened fully. Some people have told me that love closes your eyes. It occurs in the subcontinental tradition: this description of love as something so intoxicating you lose your mind. But I think of it also as a clarity of water.

So Mayer wrote in Spells that “Trauma remains in the body—the mind-body.” To counter-effect this trauma, then, is to engage with a love that fights to be clear, where its darkness does not signify an allowance of terror. Moving upstream we encounter a ghostly love that calls us into currents, faces like suns around me, a silence that becomes attentive. Not that there is no capacity for unfurling: we are memory under memory, frozen in some sedimentary layer, overflowing the rest. But that unfurling requires a care, a corridor entered with slow luminosity. There are other ways to unfurl. They do not all require an intimacy of pain. Bhanu Kapil writes, “I clear a path to retrace my steps.” I retrace it to the beginning and stop again at the moment where I was asked for an outpouring of trauma. Soft blue like a gentle still heart. Stillness, a boundary line eroding from where I stand.

A, your story makes me shiver. Falling open like a walnut, unrelenting and suddenly—eroded. Isn’t it strange how we can taste the currents of times past? My grandmother, holding my chin, tells me I look like her older sister. She is so proud. She was so bold. You have her eyes. I look at her sister’s photo in an album, but her eyes look nothing like mine. My eyes are huge and round—hers are thin, darkly lined with kohl. I reach out across currents to try and touch her sari. The soft Mysore silk drapes itself through my fingers, then falls away.

I look at her, the face of a woman I’ve never met, with whom I cross paths in my dreams sometimes. She is constructed entirely through the stories that my grandmother has told me about her. The decades fall away, and she is fiery in front of my eyes, striding across tiled floors with infectious energy, striding both towards me and away from me. Her laugh pierces through me as I reach out to touch the gap.

Here and away / here and away

                   Your eyes. Eyes with teeth. Terrible as obsidian. (Sandra Cisneros)

My eyes with teeth, tiger’s eye in the dark, glowing with hot coals. Catch a glimpse of her in my eyes. Her face in love’s residue, in the residue of years from my grandmother’s memory.

The night is terrible as obsidian. I toss and turn. Euripides’ Hecuba says, I died / long ago. Nothing can touch me now. She says the same words to me. Somewhere our ancestors’ spirits cross paths, their feet walking fault lines over my back in the night. They walk towards each other, over each other. They disappear into each other. Their faces surface in the waves of my dreams.

Linda Hogan writes, and I repeat, sleep-talking:


All my ancestors are behind me

Be still, they say. Watch and listen—

Her eyes light up with teeth. I watch and listen as she vanishes, my face reflecting in her teeth.

Alycia Pirmohamed is a Canadian-born poet living in Scotland. She is the author of the chapbooks Hinge (ignitionpress) and Faces that Fled the Wind (BOAAT Press). Alycia’s recent awards include a Pushcart Prize, the 2019 CBC Poetry Contest, the Discovery Poetry Contest, the Ploughshare’s Emerging Writer’s Award and the Gulf Coast Poetry Prize. Find her online at and on Twitter @a_pirmohamed

Pratyusha is an Indo-Swiss writer currently based in the UK. Her latest pamphlet, Bulbul Calling, was released with Bitter Melon Press in 2020. She co-edits amberflora, an eco/world poetry zine. Her twitter is at @nala_e_bulbul.

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