Book Review: A Kind of Poetry, The Fact of Memory, by Aaron Angello

The Fact of Memory: 114 Ruminations and Fabrications
By Aaron Angello
Rose Metal Press

In a piece titled “Think,” Aaron Angello tells of two conversations about what makes a poem a poem. In one, Angello argued that a poem is something that the poet or reader decides to call a poem. Simple as that.

In the other, an established poet told him that a poem is a way of thinking and can only happen in lineated verse. If, she said, a poem expresses an idea that can be expressed in prose, it’s not a successful poem and isn’t even a poem.

I mention this because I want to suggest that Angello’s The Fact of Memory is a kind of poetry, even though it is written in prose with no lines or verses. Before I go further, let me provide some context.

The Fact of Memory is a one-of-a-kind book published by Rose Metal Press, founded by Abigail Beckel and Chicago author Kathleen Rooney and specializing in “hybrid genres.” I suspect it may be the first-ever book made up of what its subtitle defines as “Ruminations and Fabrications.”

The book grew out of a writing workshop that Angello took in which the writers were required to carry out a daily practice of some kind. For Angello, a playwright, actor, stunt double, singer-songwriter, and poet, the practice had to do with Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 29," specifically its individual words.

He took a sketch pad, and he put each word of the poem, in order, at the top of its own page, so 114 words on 114 pages. Early each morning, he would sit in the same chair in his apartment, look at the word for the day, think about it and then write.

Usually, I had no idea
what I was writing.

“Usually, I had no idea what I was writing. For the most part I started from a place of what I like to call ‘the beyond consciousness,’ from a place where I didn’t ‘know’ what I was composing, so to speak…I didn’t even care if it ‘made sense.’ My only rules were that I had to write in prose, I had to fill the page, and the piece couldn’t overflow onto the next one.”

Angello’s efforts to write from a place beyond reason and logic and sense are what make The Fact of Memory a kind of poetry for me. He is reaching to say what can’t be said in normal prose with its requirements for clarity and coherence.

Doors to creativity

In the years after finishing the project, Angello tinkered with the pieces, editing, rewriting and cutting, and the result is The Fact of Memory with its 114 one-paragraph, one-page entries. You could describe them, I guess, as prose poems, but calling them ruminations and fabrications is more apt. Angello calls the book “a kind of a long lyric essay.”

Aside from supplying the 114 words, Sonnet 29 is not important in itself. I mean, it’s not like Angello is trying to resonate with Shakespeare’s ideas in his writings. Indeed, he notes, “The experiment would probably work just as well no matter the source.”

The individual words from the sonnet are simply the doors through which Angello entered an unusual and unusually rich creative space.

Seventy words are used only once in Shakespeare’s sonnet, but there are some words that pop up a lot, such as “and” (six times), “with” and “my” (five times each) and “I” and “like” (four times each). It’s interesting to see how Angello’s response to the same word is radically different at different spots in the book.

I held the cloud in my hands
the entire ride home.

For instance, early in the book, the word “my” sparks Angello to imagine riding in his parents’ car through a mountain fog. “My father excitedly rolled down the window and yelled back to me, ‘Aaron, quick, grab a handful of cloud.’…I held the cloud in my hands the entire ride home.” And kept it as a pet.

Later in the book, the word “my” leads Angello to write about a papier-mâché bowl on his bookshelf that has become “a container for the small and significant, the shimmering minutiae that evoke entire worlds.” There’s an arrowhead and someone’s gold tooth found in a parking lot and a subway token and “a stone that a child gave me—a ‘fairy tear.’ ”

That stone is an example of items, events and people that appear in more than one of these ruminations and fabrications. It’s initially mentioned in a piece titled “With” in which Angello writes that he once had a job in Los Angeles in which he dressed as a pirate and did sword-fighting at children’s birthday parties. At the end of one, this happened:

“The birthday boy, who’d just turned five or six, came running toward me, his mother running after him. ‘Here,’ he said when he caught me, and handed me a clear, polished stone with a swirl of orange in it. ‘It’s a fairy tear,’ he told me. His mother, who was chasing after him, said it was his favorite possession.”

The book’s subtitle warns the reader that not everything in Angello’s book is true. That cloud story, for example, is obviously a fabrication. The two mentions of the “fairy tear” do seem to have the ring of truth.

Recreating a Memory

And, yet, how accurate is memory? That’s a question Angello addresses in an author’s note at the start of his book:

“Memory is always, to some extent, a creative act. The fact of memory, one might say, is that is never quite factual. We don’t access a file that has been stored away in our brains. Not really. Instead, we recreate a memory each time we remember it.”

Even our facts are suspect.

One striking aspect to The Fact of Memory is how these 114 pieces together reflect in an impressionistic, fractured way the person who wrote them. Angello writes, “Yet here I am, examining every inch of myself in the pages of this book. Wisps of clouds congregate, then disperse.”

Taken together, these 114 pieces don’t comprise a Wikipedia entry on Aaron Angello or a curriculum vitae or an autobiographical essay. Instead, they fit together poetically in a portrait that is unique and original—a portrait of his experiences, his thoughts, his imaginations, and much more. The reader gets to know the writer in a direct and almost visceral way.

It is clear that an important moment in his life was the night that he and three college friends, one of whom became a lover, had a quiet party of their own on a New York rooftop. Four times in the book, Angello refers to this party and always with an elegiac edge. In a piece titled “Curse,” Angello writes about how knowledge can ruin a memory and ends:

“We are broken when we realize that that night at the party in college when we sat on the roof, drank cheap beer, and talked with bad French accents, shivering in the cold—when we felt our bodies shake and break to pieces at each little touch—that that was just, you know, biology.”

Yet, Angello wonders the extent to which this important memory is real, and comes to the conclusion, “Everything we know about ourselves and our world is fiction. Our entire past, our vast bank of stored experience, is a massive, unfinished novel in fragments.”

Forget the fabrications we come up with. Even our facts are suspect.

Picture of the author
Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).