Study Guide

Meditation at Lagunitas Memory and the Past

By Robert Hass

Memory and the Past

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking. (lines 1-2)

The "new thinkers" don’t have such a great memory for ideas, or they’d know that what they consider "new" is actually quite old – ancient Greece old. We think that the speaker is being ironic when he says that the new thinking "resembles" the old. What he really means is that the two are the same.

We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. (lines 12-14)

The title of the poem suggests that the speaker thinks all these thoughts while in the natural scenery of Lagunitas. But, the poem actually keeps diving further and further back into memory. This is the first memory – of talking with a friend the night before.

There was a woman I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. (lines 16-23)

The conversation between the speaker and his friend seems to remind him of yet another memory, of a woman he makes love to. But, then, he remembers how the woman makes him think of yet another memory, this time all the way back to his childhood. So, let’s get this straight: guy looks at nature, nature makes guy think of conversation, conversation makes guy think of woman, woman makes guy think of childhood. Memory, in this poem, is like an infinite regression further and further back into the past. To us, this seems like a pretty accurate representation of how memory works.

It hardly had to do with her. (line 23)

The speaker’s desire for the woman has very little to do with her specific looks or personality. It has more to do with the positive, happy thoughts that she reminds him of, like fishing on a riverbank.

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her. (lines 24-25)

The "distance" here is one of time, not space. It’s the distance between the present and the past. The speaker digs into the language we use to talk about desire – the word "longing" – and tries to figure out why that word might be appropriate. We desire people because they connect us to the lost past, a place that exists only in memory. This is a bittersweet thought.

But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed.(lines 26-28)

Oh, good. For a second there we thought that the speaker doesn’t know anything about the woman except for her small shoulders. But, he actually knows her pretty well, enough so that there are other pleasant memories which have more to do with her that can come to mind during sex. He finds it strange that these powerful memories aren’t as important to him as his own, private memories of his childhood.

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