I flicked the yellow of the pencil I had been chewing on from my front teeth and stared out across the bay. As I relaxed into the outsized Adirondack chair, my feet lifted from the ground and dangled like the legs of a doll over the swath of autumn leaves. The age: twelve. The activity: writing poetry. The subjects: a makeshift bird’s nest, the halyards on a far-off boat, the body of an elderly fisherman, tired and corset-stiff, paddling his way into the horizon. These early years of writing poetry at my grandparents’ house in East Moriches—of documenting its character and engaging the landscape’s many personalities and imagined narratives—were some of my favorite.
With all of the comical contradictions that come with a pre-teen aspiring to attain the struggling writer “look”, I wandered out on Sunday mornings in my father’s robe, a cup of orange juice and toast in one hand and a leather-bound notebook in the other. The notebook was a present from my grandfather for my eleventh birthday, just as my love of poetry had begun to blossom.
The front cover was worn down by design, imbued with a sense of old-world wisdom. Inscribed in small font on the top, it read For Alex: Receiver of Memory. The title was an allusion to The Giver, a book my grandfather loved to read to me before bed. The main character, Jonas, is chosen to preserve all of the memories of his world’s forgotten past, assuming the time-honored position of Receiver of Memory. In a dystopian society void of all imagination, Jonas is able to see what those around him cannot.
“It goes without saying that this present comes with a responsibility,” my grandfather told me the day I cracked open the spine of the notebook for the very first time.
It smelled rich and earthy, too expensive to be held in hands that were always covered in something or other. My grandfather’s idea of a present was seldom just that. He looked at me with resolve and pointed to the cover.
“You are now the Receiver of Memory,” he said in a resounding voice. I looked at him, first amused, then quizzical, as I saw his expression was firm.
He walked over to the window and started eyeing a swan that had emerged from the beach grass. “We’ve decided to sell the house, Alex.”
My brow furrowed. This house? I opened my mouth in objection but my grandfather put a finger to his lips and continued talking. “I’m telling you this because I’ve seen you out by the bay, writing, and I want you to keep at it. Keep writing about this place. The trees, the bay, that tumbledown gazebo that your grandmother and I never got around to replacing,” he said wistfully. “Anything that speaks to you.” He turned back to the swan, which had rejoined its family and was now inspecting the feathers of its little ones.
“I built this house twenty-five years ago and I just can’t bear the idea of it disappearing. What do you say?”
The first thought that came to mind was why we couldn’t just take pictures of the house. Why did my grandfather want to immortalize these memories through poetry and what’s more, why did he want his twelve-year old grandson to be in charge of a task that meant this much to him? But I saw that he was resolute so I didn’t ask any questions. I had a month left of summer before I had to go back to the city for school. As I embarked on this assignment, the question kept coming back to me like a gnat buzzing just outside of reach: why poetry?
I was approaching the final week of this ambitious project when a kayak just beyond the buoy caught my attention. There were two people in it, one heavy-set with a fishing rod in his hand and the other—presumably, the man’s son—smaller and wearing a bright red windbreaker. The son handed his father a fishing hook with a piece of bait scrappily fastened to the end, a scrunched up look of disgust on his face as he wiped down each of his fingers vigorously. The father cast the line and relaxed into his seat. I relaxed into mine.
I jotted down a couple of notes that I thought might feed into a future poem: the empty horseshoe crabs in the sand, the way the blue of the sky matched the blue of the bay, cleaved by a zipper of houses lining Dune Road. I picked at the remaining crumbs of toast and wiped my hands on the sides of my shorts.
Suddenly, I heard a splash and turned my attention back to the bay. The father was now lurched forward, clutching down on his bucket hat. The noise had startled the son from his daze, who was now squirming from side to side, edging to see what his father had caught. After a few casts and reel backs, the father carefully reeled in what looked like a small fluke. Its scales glistened a sick, silvery color and its gills expanded to the point of tearing. The son was squirming almost as strenuously as the fish, shrieking at his father to move out of the way so he could see the catch.
The father unhooked the fish and laid it out in his son’s hands. The boy giggled and twitched his shoulders at the touch of the creature’s slippery skin. I took down a couple of notes—fish scales like a glassy mosaic, hats flipping their lips against the wind. A few seconds passed before the father motioned at his son to hand the fish back. But the son shook his head and clutched it to his shoulder: the fish was writhing violently at that point, banging its head repeatedly against the clavicle of the young boy. The father stood up in a fit, shouting loudly at his son to throw the fish back into the water. The son shook his head sourly and continued to clench the fish tighter.
I watched, a numb feeling permeating my body, as the fish’s eyes bulged. As its back arched before giving in, its eyes fanatic. The father finally managed to pull the fish away from his son and immediately tossed it into the bay, scolding his son for his irresponsibility and thoughtlessness. But it was too late.
I watched the limp body of the fish sink, face-up, below the surface of the water. I clutched my stomach. I’d seen people catch fish dozens of times throughout my life, but each time the fish were either returned to their home or killed and taken as food. What had just happened felt so odiously wasteful and vain, it made me sick.
The father and son had moved on and were now unwrapping sandwiches for lunch. I sat back in my chair, stunned, feeling useless and angry. A lump rose in my throat and I swallowed it down only for it to be replaced by another. Bending down to pick up my pencil, which had fallen during the commotion, an idea struck me. I took the description I had jotted down earlier—fish scales like a glassy mosaic—and moved it to the top of a new page in my notebook. I started to write down everything I could remember about the fish: what it looked like, what expressions it made, and then delved further, conjuring what I imagined it must have felt and who would miss it. I wrote and wrote. When I was finished, I read over the poem and something miraculous happened. For a brief moment, I thought I saw the fish, the same fish, floating gently downstream. For a second, it had come back, more alive than ever.
It was in that moment that the summer long task my grandfather had given me finally made sense. Why poetry? I had wondered over and over again. I read the poem I had just written for a second time and closed my eyes: this time I saw the fish squirming in the boy’s hands so vividly that I started to sweat and had to open my eyes to assure myself that nothing was there. I realized that poetry has the unique potential to breathe life into those things that have been forgotten or otherwise discarded and conjure them back into existence. It’s a brief existence, but it’s a way to keep those things we hold dear in our collective consciousness. It’s why I agreed to write about this house. It’s also why, four years later, when my grandfather passed away, I wrote a poem about him and have re-read it every couple of months since. I can say he is now more alive than ever.