Years ago, Aaron Angello embarked on an unusual daily writing practice: in the morning, coffee in hand, he devoted himself to an individual word of Shakespeare’s 29th sonnet. The 114 words of the sonnet became 114 days of writing, 114 pages of Angello allowing each word to evoke in him a memory, a fantasy, a speculation, a regret, a wish. As he describes his writing practice, “Once I felt I was filled with [a] word—as if the word filled my body, not just my mind—I began to write.” What resulted, after a few years of honing and revising, is The Fact of Memory: an unusual memoir that comes at you from odd angles, revealing an inner life of great creative curiosity.
In support of the publication of The Fact of Memory (Rose Metal Press, 2022), Ninth Letter has chosen eleven of Angello’s transformed Shakespearean words from Sonnet 29 (as can be seen from the highlighted sonnet we include here). A small sample of a self-portrait of exceptional richness.
“I can’t believe my eyes,” some say with a kind of unambiguous wisdom, a note of sadness in their voices, the voices of those who have eaten the fruit from the forbidden tree, who are aware of their nakedness, who wander through the desert on cracked and dusty feet. These organs, the eyes, are always there, in the face, looking forward, the looker often unaware of their presence and functioning. This is part of the problem. I remember a movie I saw as a child. The characters were all puppets, but they were puppets representing fantastical and often frightening creatures. One of the puppets was a witch, I believe, who held an eye up above her head in her hand. It was through this eye that she saw, for she had none in her face. If she found it necessary to see someone or something, she would take her eye, her tool, out of her pocket or pouch and point it in the direction of a particular set of data that she might usually apply to various other sets of data that she had collected via other means and stored in her cackling little puppet brain. We might all be better off with eyes in pouches.
This memory has stuck with me for about twenty years. Somewhere near my East Village apartment (my memory tells me it was just outside my apartment, on the corner of First Avenue and 12th Street, but it could have very well been someplace else, a little further down on First Avenue, or on Avenue A, or maybe it wasn’t in the East Village at all but in Midtown, in Hell’s Kitchen before Disney moved in), a homeless man was lying on his side on the sidewalk facing the base of a streetlight (or maybe it was the base of a lighted sign or a stoplight, but my memory tells me it was a streetlight). He had, after expending a terrific amount of time and energy, removed a metal plate that covered the access to the electrical wiring within the base. Not many people know this, but these bases of streetlights (signs, stoplights) sometimes contain a standard electrical outlet. This one did. This man had a small, portable radio with him (at least I remember it as a radio, it could have been a black and white television or a CD or cassette player, though I don’t remember any CDs or cassettes, so it was probably a radio. Or a TV) that he had probably found somewhere. His hands were shaking as he plugged the device in, and music began to play. He started laughing. His body was filled with an intense, satisfied joy. He jumped up (or stayed on the ground) and danced (or snapped his fingers, or just laughed).
Crying, it seems to me, is one of the few shared expressions that reaches across cultures, even species. In its infantile form, it is pure, pre-emotional expression—pre-emotional because at its most basic, it is not shaped by the social. It is not thought of as personal, as something that I am uniquely feeling. I’m not talking about weeping here, that crafted demonstration of an emotional state that is intended to communicate, either to another or to oneself, the way an individual is feeling. This is not a cry, at least not in the sense I mean. A cry is an infant wailing the moment she is born, having just experienced the first great trauma of her life. It is the scream of a dog that has gotten its tail slammed in a door. It is the wail of grief. It is the groan of erotic ecstasy. A cry is a body responding to some stimulus with shimmering virtuality, resonating nothing but pure potential. It is, in that moment, aware, not of its isolation, but of its connection to other bodies, other beings, other things. A glass dropped in a restaurant in Turkey is felt in a kitchen in Wyoming. A coldness on the skin in the room where that thing happened.
I was in a different school every year from the first through the eighth grade. Sometimes I went to two schools in the same year. My parents weren’t in the military; they just moved a lot. Maybe they were restless, I don’t know. One thing that I became good at was repeatedly recreating myself and reintroducing my newly created self to groups of people who hadn’t written a narrative about me, no memories, no limitation. One year I was a studious kid who sang in the choir, the next I was a jock who loved nothing more than football. One year I wore brightly colored sweaters and corduroys, the next I wore jeans, a white T-shirt, a black motorcycle jacket. That year I mostly hung out with a group of guys at the swing set watching cars pass on the street that ran along the side of the playground, commenting excitedly when a Trans-Am or a Firebird passed. That year I was also the kid who said “fuck” and “shit” a lot. The following year I was the quiet introvert who liked to draw and write stories and was teaching himself to write code—BASIC—on the Macintosh in the school’s library. And the funny thing was, no matter who I was in each given iteration, after I’d decided who I was going to be, no one ever doubted that that was who I really was. I didn’t even doubt it.
Emily Dickinson comes to mind, of course, but where does hope alight when a soul’s been crushed? Or when we stop believing in the concept of “soul” altogether? I was having lunch with a friend the other day, a colleague at the college where I work. I don’t know for sure, but I think she’s in her late sixties, and she’s brilliant. As a younger woman, she worked as a music journalist for Rolling Stone before she transitioned into working as a publicist on big Hollywood films. She’s had a remarkable life. She’s the kind of person who refers to Coppola as “Francis” in normal conversation. She seems to know every star and has endless stories about them. I love her stories. The other day, she asked me, out of nowhere really, if I missed being in Hollywood. I told her that I didn’t. I don’t miss the traffic. I don’t miss the egos. I don’t miss the endless series of terrible jobs and struggle. “What I do miss,” I told her, “is the belief I had in myself, in my future, in my potential. I miss feeling like there was something more out there, waiting for me.” “Yeah,” she said. “I get that.” I used to call that sense of possibility “faith,” but it isn’t faith at all, is it? It’s hope, and hope is made of different stuff entirely.
Jeanne Calment, a French supercentenarian, was born in Arles, France in 1875, and she died 122 years later, in 1997. When she was thirteen, she met Vincent Van Gogh when he came into her father’s store to buy a canvas. She was physically active (she took up fencing at eighty-five, rode her bike until she was 100, then continued to walk everywhere until a surgery at 110), but she wasn’t particularly athletic. She smoked cigarettes until she was 117, and she ate more than two pounds of chocolate a week. She never stopped drinking port wine. She outlived her grandchildren by decades. When she died, everyone on the planet took two steps to their left. The stock market dropped suddenly, and three men in their forties slipped into cardiac arrest. Seventy-nine women had their first orgasm, and thousands of women had no orgasm at all. There was a burst of static on the radio, right in the middle of a new Radiohead track. A small group of college students studied for a chemistry exam. Three people received their pilot’s license. Millions were asleep, and they all dreamed a dream in which fresh vegetables figured prominently. There were 163 people on Mt. Everest. Forty-six people moved to Los Angeles to try acting. An eight-year-old boy finally stood up to a bully at school, punching him squarely in the nose. I played a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” on the patio of a café on Melrose.
I moved into an apartment at 345 E 12th Street, in the East Village of Manhattan, in 1994, when I was twenty-one. Seven years later, I was living in Los Angeles, but I was in Colorado recording an album. During downtime in the studio, I read a book called Dream Brother, a biography of both Tim and Jeff Buckley. I had come to Jeff Buckley’s music late, only a few years before, sometime around the time he jumped, fully clothed, into the Mississippi and sang songs as the current pulled him toward his watery death. How I used to romanticize such things. I sat in the control room and read that Jeff Buckley, my musical god, had lived at 233 E 12th Street, a block from my old apartment. He moved there three or four years before I did, and his album Grace was released in 1994, so it’s likely he was no longer in that apartment. But he could have been. He could have been living a block away from me. He could have walked into Sin-é, sat down and had a beer while Nicole and I sat two tables away making snide comments about the grungy singer-songwriter who was performing that night. We could have passed each other on the street, Jeff Buckley and I, eaten at the same café, sat smoking cigarettes on the same bench in Tompkins Square. I had entered his world right as he was leaving it, becoming the Jeff Buckley that I would come to know a few years later via a secondhand CD. I remember reading that biography in the recording studio in Colorado, reading that he once lived a block from me, and being devastated by the prospect of nearness, by how frequently we’re on the wrong sidewalk.
I read recently that remembering is a creative act. It isn’t a retrieval of stored information. It is a creative construction of past events that takes place in the present. And apparently, the more frequently one remembers a given event, the less likely it is that that memory accurately represents the event being remembered. A memory is the recreation of the last recreation of that memory. Everything we know about ourselves and our worlds is fiction. Our entire past, our vast bank of stored experience, is a massive, unfinished novel in fragments. The red and white striped sweater. That look on her face when you touched her knee beneath the table. The carpet in your grandmother’s house. Who was driving. The poster of Marilyn Monroe on the wall of your college dorm room. These are not fragments of a past, shored against ruins. They are inventions. Greg, Danielle, Nicole, and I sat on the rooftop drinking chianti from water glasses. The Chrysler Building above us, the towers below. We were the new Beats, Greg said. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Marlon Brando, James Dean—we were taking those reins, drinking wine and smoking Parliaments on a rooftop in the East Village. Three stars visible in the night sky. Car alarms in the distance—we all sang along with the familiar pattern of beeps and whoops. Nicole’s arm. Her eyes on me, holding for the briefest of moments.
A woman in her mid-forties, recently divorced, was working alone in her garden. It was late morning, and the sun was particularly oppressive. Beads of sweat rolled down the back of her neck as she pruned the basil and harvested a few peppers and tomatoes. She wished, aloud, for a light breeze, but it wasn’t one of those days. It was just hot. She took a tomato from her basket and bit into it. Juice ran down her chin and her wrist. She looked back toward the house, thought about its silence, its emptiness. She took another bite, and she bit into something hard, like the pit of a peach. It was an old six-sided die, made of ivory. She dug it out of the pink flesh with her fingers and examined it. There was nothing extraordinary about it. She put it into her mouth and sucked it, cleaning it of seeds and bits of the tomato’s flesh. She leaned back, stretched her body out beside a row of cabbage while she moved the die about with her tongue. The cloudless sky. The ground beneath her felt cool and pleasant. She thought that maybe she could stay there forever, supine in the dirt, next to the cabbages. She tried to identify the particular sides of the die with her tongue. She found the side with only one dot. She began to dig with her fingers into the soil beside her, digging ever deeper, luxuriating in the moist soil between her fingers. She felt something, a thick root, a tuber. It moved slightly. Without changing her body’s position, she dug around it more aggressively. It was a hand, a small human hand, and it grabbed hers and held it tightly. She squeezed it lovingly, caressed it with her thumb. She looked at the cloudless sky through a film of tears and swallowed deeply.
When I was a child, the little grocery store in the town in which I lived burned to the ground. My neighbors, my family, and I watched it burn one night from a few blocks away. It was the kind of store where you could by something on credit by simply telling the woman at the checkout to “put it on my tab.” They had jars of candy that cost a penny a piece, and my friends and I would check the pay phone outside for forgotten change so we could buy some. I remember an exchange once, in the checkout line, between a mother and her son, a boy my age. He asked if he could have a can of chew. His mother, aghast and embarrassed, replied, “No you cannot have a can of chew! [Hold for comic timing] You can have some of your daddy’s when you get home.” I’m sure this store had a name, but we just called it “the store.” And this was the store that we watched burn, transform into flame and smoke and bursts of sparks that hovered in the cold air. A few days later, when the charred rubble had all but stopped smoldering, my brothers and I walked into the detritus and started to dig. There wasn’t much to find, but I found a blackened, dented can. The label had burned away. It was still warm in my hands. My oldest brother and I sat on a pile of bricks, and, with the opener on his pocketknife, we opened the can. It contained sliced peaches in syrup, and they were warm. We ate them with our soot-black fingers, juice running down our wrists.
I remember hearing as a teenager that every seven years, every cell in the body has been shed and replaced. The veracity of this statement aside, I loved the idea that every seven years we are, quite literally, new people. I was, however, confused by the fact that I had scars that were older than seven years. New cells, I thought, had to inherit memory from the old. Ancestral consciousness on a micro level. A couple of climbers were attempting a first ascent of a difficult route up a rock face just outside of Mesa Verde National Park. Midway up the face, where the lead climber was setting an anchor, he found, hidden in a pocket of the rock, a 1,200-year-old clay pot, perfectly intact. Their ascent, it appeared, was not in fact the first. Outside my window, snow is falling, heavily. Businesses and schools are closed today. This is a reality of repetition. A new day that we’ve all lived before. They say relationships often fall apart after seven years. The seven-year itch, they call it. If a couple wants to last longer than seven years, they have to agree to be with a new person, a new person who happens to be the same person. History as echo. We sit on the stoop in the dry, California night, smoking cigarettes, staring through heavy eyes at the street. We both wonder if we will make love one last time. Orgasm followed by silent tears and dreamless sleep. Sounds of traffic on Melrose. A police helicopter somewhere in the distance. Burn of smoke. A second bottle of Two-Buck Chuck. Later, after I’ve left, she will write a poem on the wall with a black permanent marker. A French poem—maybe lyrics to a Jacques Brel song. Something about oubli, oublier, oublié.
Aaron Angello is a poet, playwright, and essayist from the Rocky Mountains who lives and feels remarkably out of place in the charming, but very Eastern, town of Frederick, Maryland. He received his MFA and PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder, and he currently teaches writing and theater at Hood College. Visit his website at aaronangello.net.