Swirling Memory, Magnetic Force: A Review of Sandy Florian's Boxing the Compass, by Kelly Lydick
Swirling Memory, Magnetic Force: A Review of Sandy Florian's
Boxing the Compass
Memory is elusive. It twists and turns, tangles and infiltrates; it shifts and moves smoke-like and foggy; it is the lens through which we see. It was Einstein who believed that “Memory is deceptive because it is colored by today’s events.” Carl Jung who once said: “The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” And, Kierkegaard, who thought: “Life can only be understood backwards; but must be lived forwards.”
Readers can find in Sandy Florian’s latest volume, Boxing the Compass, an elucidation of what is contained within memory: mysterious, yet precise; ambiguous, yet specific; solitary, yet nestled within a web of pieces and parts of events held quietly in an ocean of neurons and synapses.
Each individual memory of each individual event sits like a boat adrift at sea, to be plucked from the abyss and towed ashore where the conscious mind awaits its remembering, and attempts to draw conclusions about the nature of “reality.” At 0 degrees readers embark on a journey through the memories anchored to shore and memories that have set sail never to be seen again.
Florian declares: “This is my empty box” (17). She begins the extended metaphor of navigation on an open sea and boxing the compass as a way of discussing memory and the mystery about how memory is stored and extracted from the mind as if on queue.
To “box the compass” is to contain the memory, pinpoint it amongst the tumultuous waves of day-to-day life, to pause in praise of nostalgia, center within the quiet eye of the storm, to linger on the bittersweet passing of time and the life that wades within it.
The plates of the earth shift like the tugs of the subconscious on the conscious mind, waiting to emerge on the surface in an eruption of stormy weather that forces one to re-build what has been destroyed in its wake.
“The principles of the Plate Tectonic Theory are that the interior of the Earth is made up of two major layers, the lithosphere of crust and of mantle and the asthenosphere of molten magma. The lithosphere is then composed of eight major plates that ride on top of the asthenosphere and move in relationship to one another at one of the convergent, divergent, or transform boundaries where they quake and erupt and form mountains and trenches.” (23)
To observe memory, then, is to experience self and, simultaneously, be outside the self; to know the self and, simultaneously, be surprised by the expressions of one’s own being. “The divergent boundary, her mother explained, is like two people walking away from each other and finally separating. The transform boundary, her mother continued, is like two ships that pass in the night, so quietly ‘neath the stars’ soft light, as she moved ever so gently into her own gentle dream. It’s like two people, her mother once said. It’s like two people passing each other on the sidewalk. It’s like this. It’s like you and this woman walking toward you right now.” (23)
To plumb the depths of memory is as much like recounting the history of the earth and it’s fragile evolution, as it is like exploring the greater historical context within which each person is now imbedded. “…although there is little information on the early history of that superocean, Panthalassa, we do know that 200 million years ago, the super continent, Pangaea, broke into parts that drifted across the Earth and opened the mouths of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans…” (18)
How do we navigate this complex story of self, other, and history? Thirty-two points make up the lines that bi-sect the compass (and that allow sailors to navigate the open sea). Thirty-two points evenly spaced bi-sect the circular shape of the compass. “The distance between each of the thirty-two points is eleven and a quarter degrees, and the naming of the thirty-two points in their clockwise order is called Boxing the Compass, north, north by east, north-northeast, northeast by north, for those sailors cannot sail their ships who cannot with ease box their compass, northeast, northeast by east, east-northeast, easy by north, east, east by south, east-southeast, southeast by east, twenty-nine one-thousand, thirty.” Thirty-two points by which memories are navigated, each linked to one another, a degree on the compass, a moment in time, and, each section of the book that builds upon the next, 11 and a quarter degrees.
Section by section, to write is to extract from memory as well as to create new memories by way of assembling and constructing story. The self-referencing narrator returns again to the box that holds everything in it—memory, story, self, mother, history, science, nature’s cycles. Memories are splayed across the sea like the arms of a hurricane peppering the ocean with individual details, much like the arms of the Milky Way splaying stars across the galaxy.
“Words still. Mind clears. She starts writing the word, I, writing the word erase, with a thirsty spirit of fish and foam, winnowing out the finer than sand sediments, and leaving the coarser materials behind, inscribing and effacing, embedding and expelling, because this is the box in which she spirals…” (53-54)
How and from where is memory retrieved? Where does memory live? It is not a tangible thing, and, perhaps, because of its very nature, it is a thing not to be trusted. “Why is the sky? Why the sea? Why are your eyes so cerulean blue? She recalls in this minute-by-minute version, conversion, turning east by south, toward the kitchen, toward the kettle, toward the full blown stove, the same way she remembers her mother turning east by south.” (37)
Florian toys with duality as she has done in earlier works, but in this book, the abstract quality that was present in her previous works is now anchored in concrete detail; grandmother Luna, the fisherman’s watch, her living room telephone, the stained kitchen table, jam and bread.
At the eye of the narrator’s storm is a fragile and complex relationship with her mother. The two are surrounded by the storm, centered in storm, and also protected by the calm that the center of a hurricane provides. Amongst the spinning, circular motion, is reprieve.
“…the only thing she sees as she wades east through the entrance and east through the hallways is the face of the dove dead on the sidewalk, like the face of a mother all out of true, like the shape of a brother buried in a box, and she wants to have marked the scene of the crime, that patch of catastrophe, with a marker, some tape, police tape, a brick. Because it’s the shape of things that stay her, yes, it’s the shape of things that make her stay.” (33) Navigation of emotional waters becomes possible for the narrator as she begins to understand her own place within her familial lineage.
Emotional underpinnings tether memory to consciousness—a light and airy thing. Reminiscence poses a unique relationship to the understanding of mortality and the self-reflection that inevitably occurs in retrospection. Florian is without nostalgia, yet still finds resolution through a sense of sweetness for what has come before, and what is to come in the future.
What Florian describes is the experience: navigating the emotional waters of memory—through the hallway of regret, down the road to benevolence, and across the overarching journey to nostalgia, wading through elation, circumnavigating trauma, and avoiding the icebergs of self-sabotage.
To arrive at the end of this book is to have come full circle. To box the compass, perhaps, is a journey without destination. If we “box the compass” we have completed a 360 degree spin from a pivotal center. Aren’t we, then, back at the very same place from which we began? Is this not the very same movement by which a hurricane traverses the sea? The same movement by which a neural pathway is mapped in the brain?
Boxing the Compass is as much a treatise on the structure of memory as it is a series of questions that ask: How do we interact with memory? How do we retrieve it, experience it, move and live with it—alongside it and cradled, inherently, within it? Is it in the oscillations between sense and nonsense? The filters of perception colored by the present moment? The retrospective understanding only accessible through a wistful yesterday?
In mature eloquence and the stamina of a sustained metaphor—complete with distinct details and a syntax that only Florian could compose—Boxing the Compass emits a new level of craft for this author—and leaves readers wondering which magnetic force is stronger—gravity’s pull on the compass, or Florian’s language on the psyche.
Kelly Lydick received her M.A. in Writing and Consciousness from the New College of California, San Francisco (now at CIIS). Her writing has appeared in ditch: poetry that matters, Shady Side Review, Switched-on Gutenberg, Mission At Tenth, and Thema, among others.
Her nonfiction articles have appeared in Java, Western Art Collector, Santa Fean, and True Blue Spirit magazines, and others. Her work has also been featured on the home page of ElephantJournal.com and on KQED’s The Writers’ Block, under the theme “Silhouettes.” She is the author of the chapbook We Once Were, and the experimental work, Mastering the Dream (Second Story Books, CA).
In addition, Kelly holds professional certifications as a Meditation Facilitator and as a Gateway Dreaming™ Coach. She teaches writing workshops and metaphysical workshops throughout the United States, and also offers private consultations through her company, Waking the Dream. You can visit her at www.kellylydick.com.