Like Sharon Butala in Perfection of the Morning (1994) and Candace Savage in The Geography of Blood (2012), Theresa Kishkan explores the relationship between landscape and memory.
The essays in Mnemonic are titled in two ways, first with the Latin name for a tree and, second, with a reference to an element of her personal experience, as though these are vitally intertwined.
In Quercus garryana Fire, she describes a scene which recreates for readers the ways in which she has, since girlhood, absorbed the natural world around her, a scene which will resonate even for mostly-indoor readers:
“…I’d recline in the grass, ants tickling my bare legs, and read Nancy Drew adventures. I longed for a life so exciting – where treasure might turn up in a hollow tree or under a bridge; where villains might be thwarted by polite requests; where a girl would rise from a shaking up by an escaped convict, straighten her stocking seams, and drive away in her roadster for the next case. I was absorbing the dry heat, pollens, and odours as I read, my body resting on golden grass that flattened beneath my weight, satin to the touch.”
The author adeptly recreates scenes which invite readers to remember experiences from their own childhoods, immersing reader and writer alike in a time which came before, which is both distant and ever-present.
“Growing up, I remember the elderly couples at work in their gardens, tending neat English borders of perennials, trees pruned within an inch of their lives, watched by a cocker spaniel or Jack Russell. These couples were kind to children whose baseballs landed in their backyards. And there were also the widows. Invited into their houses, I was filled with the sense that time had stopped.”
Musing upon the passage of time in Mnemonic, a work unabashedly preoccupied with the mysteries of memory is to be expected. But the inclusionary tone and the author’s willingness to share elements of her process of rediscovery build emotional resonance throughout the work.
“I would think, Entire lives have been lived in these houses, and would be filled with something like sadness, but not quite. Later the word nostalgia settled into my lexicon with such ease that I knew I had been waiting all my life for it.”
As the author reflects upon more recent years, the preoccupations shift slightly, but the focus remains the same: “How much am I remembering, how much is dreaming?”
Similarly, there is room amongst the trees for consideration of other elements of the natural world, but the plants remain at centre stage.
“Predators, tricksters, comics, monogamists, careful parents, scavengers, demiurges, shape-shifters, opportunists, acrobats on the high currents of air, practitioners of song. If I am honest, I must confess that ravens are almost as influential to my sense of music as the other singers I have learned to love.”
Its meditative style is almost tangible, perhaps even contagious, so that readers who have settled into Mnemonic may find themselves turning pages ever-more slowly, taking time to look around and reach back, imagining what could serve as a mnemonic for other lives filled with other memories.