Building Memories

(a sequence)

i: My First Memory is a Room

It has walls, my memory, dark and determined as
the workings of a watch. Its movement is captured
in light, a broken blind. The locked door is a mouth
from which screams can’t escape. The freestanding
fridge, tall as a casket, stares it down. A pale body
confined to the ceiling is a cloud turning
this room, this memory into the sky, and I
hang in the shadows, solid as a ghost, seeing
this memory, this room make sense of what unfolds
and how the floor – antiseptic clean; asymmetrical,
stepping stone tiles – is a jigsaw …

piece of

time, swollen as a punch, moves this memory,
this room on. IhateyouIhateyouIhateyou! Quickening,
a body – shadow, spirited – looms over me. Still
the cloud, meek girl, circles the ceiling,
and this room, this memory and I turn to
face one another, embrace; we will get through this,
we say. Then we are sent flying. Not shapeshifters,
not Alcyone, Leda or Hecate, not even moons, we
spin through space, set to freestanding, and always
I move forwards with this memory, this room.

ii: My Second Memory is a Duplex 

Tight and narrow. Thin-
walled. The noise of
neighbours, other memories,
barks in upon this. Bad dog!
No escaping the unleashed:
remembrance of being locked into
hunched space, hungry, fierce
heat of high summer, afternoon
light full, the father gone
to nightshift, turning of
his lathe tirelessly through
the coming dark, and the mother
abandoned to squabbling
kids, to exercising the hound,
and her temper. All the energy of
my five year old body resists
being still, not even when bolted
door opens on this squat space,
Get to sleep! The dog snarls; the strap
is set free. The memory owned
by this duplex hunts the mother
back to the kitchen, Bad dog!
slinks in the corner, rage
of the radio turned high
to hungry wails with news
of the cruel weather, forecasts
for an ongoing depression
and how – a mindset, really,
a confined space – there’s more
of everything bad to come.

iii: My Third Memory is a Bungalow

Looking back, this memory is a single storey, the view coffined
from cement blocks, grey sky, low light and I – clothed in
second-hand, crouched and alone – shrink to the raised
voices at my back, I can’t take this hellhole anymore! as leaves,
dead red, fall from trees, and I slip away, like her bags,
into this memory on repeat, this space reduced to one outlook
as if lost to an exit for which I’m to blame, for everything
would be fixed if I wasn’t broken, and by such narrowing,
I hear door closed to echo through my future, body fixed by
this bungalow to a pane tight with memory of an abandoned
day, night set free, her body, shadow, an ever-diminishing thing.

iv: My Fourth Memory is Semi-Detached

It survives beside the others,
this memory, resident of
the lives I didn’t choose:


I’m a stay-at-home
mum married at eighteen
to a man I met at school,
two kids, two Minis, pets;


I’m confined
to two-up, two-down, safety
found in small spaces like
a neighbour’s inner-life,
part-time job at Poundland,
boarding house holiday in Rhyl;


I’m too close
to the cast off, broken
toys, broken bones
which build each day
in my parent’s half-house
of kaleidoscope pieces –
bright and dark – not quite;


I’m torn
by these memories,
exile of the in-between;
for which are made thin
as fabric, and which real
things settled for when


Siobhan Harvey

Listen to Siobhan reading ‘Building Memories’ (11:27).


Siobhan Harvey is a migrant author of five books, including the poetry collection, Cloudboy (Otago University Press 2014), which won New Zealand’s richest prize for poetry, the Landfall Kathleen Grattan Award. She’s also co-editor of the New Zealand bestseller, Essential New Zealand Poems (Penguin Random House 2014). Her work has been published in Arc (Canada), Asian Literary Review (Hong Kong), Griffith Review (Aus), Segue (US), Stand (UK), and Structo (UK), as well as the anthology Feminist Divine: Voices of Power and Invisibility (Cyren US 2019). She won the 2019 Kathleen Grattan Award for a Sequence of Poems, 2019 Robert Burns Poetry Prize, and 2016 Write Well Award (Fiction, US). She was runner-up in the 2011 Landfall Essay Competition, and 2015 and 2014 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competitions. The Poetry Archive (UK) holds a ‘Poet’s Page’ devoted to her work.

© text and audio 2020