Oh if remembering were forgetting

Buljeongdae Rock - Album of Mount Kumgang, 18th century, Jeong Seon
Background Image: Buljeongdae Rock – Album of Mount Kumgang, 18th century, Jeong Seon

Su Shi, an 11th century Chinese poet is thought to have wept as he lamented not having been born in Korea and thus would never see Mount Kumgang, the Diamond Mountains. Though he would not lay eyes on them in his lifetime, they did exist for him in his imagination and perhaps through other artists’ works. Even today it is very difficult for most people to go see the Diamond Mountains because they are located inside North Korea. Thus the paradox is that the poet longs for a place he has never seen and has only ever known through the memories of other people and this has brought him joy, even though he is sad that he can’t experience them personally. Therefore, as Emily writes, “And if to miss – were merry” her sadness is still joyful because as she remembers her grief is turned to happiness even though the actual situation hasn’t changed since the object of whom she misses is still not present. Just as Su Shi finds joy in reading a poem of the mountains he is grief-stricken to never experience, Emily finds joy in picking the flowers that she “gathered” today for her friend Samuel Bowles, whom the poem is addressed to.

In Su Shi’s poem, Dreaming of My Deceased Wife on the Night of the 20th Day of the First Month, he writes:

Ten boundless years now separate the living and the dead,
I have not often thought of her, but neither can I forget.
Her lonely grave is a thousand li distant, I can’t say where my wife lies cold.
We could not recognise each other even if we met again,
My face is all but covered with dust, my temples glazed with frost.
In deepest night, a sudden dream returns me to my homeland,
She sits before a little window, and sorts her dress and make-up.
We look at each other without a word, a thousand lines of tears.
Must it be that every year I’ll think of that heart-breaking place,
Where the moon shines brightly in the night, and bare pines guard the tomb.

As the poet recalls his dead wife of a ten years since, he also describes how he has “not often thought of her” yet is also unable to forget. Though he would not recognize her if she were standing in front of him, the memory of her arranging her belongings would still come back to him, perhaps as a dream late at night. As she arranges her possessions, his memories, which are now more often dusty and “glazed with frost”, would come into focus once again and he would relive this heartbreaking domestic and simple moment again. He has not remembered yet can’t forget.

In Emily’s poem, the first line equates remembering to forgetting and in the second line she proclaims that she will not remember in order to keep from forgetting. How is this possible? How can forgetting be remembering and how can the act of forgetting keep one from ever forgetting? Perhaps it is the turn she makes in lines five and six which are the key. In those lines she turns the act of missing to being “merry” and in line six the act of mourning to being “gay”. To experience the good emotions, she had to experience the bad because it’s what brings her back to her connection to whom she is writing. In other words, had she actually forgotten she would never have been happy because she actually would have forgotten, but she didn’t actually forget, her missing and her mourning brought her back around to being “merry” and “gay” just as Su Shi hadn’t actually forgotten his wife because if he had he never would have remembered her. Only in death would he actually forget because once in the “tomb” he would be like his wife who does not recognize him when they run into each other.

Thus like the mountain range he never saw, he still is brought to a place of joy through the memory of others and of his own imagination. Just as Su Shi might see a scene of the mountains depicted and thus be reminded of his longing for them, Emily plucks some flowers blithely but then the flowers remind her of whom she has forgotten and thus remembers. Just as Su Shi writes a poem about his dead wife who he has forgotten, he remembers her, just as Emily writes a poem about forgetting her friend which causes her to remember.