The Painful Grip of Memory
In his poem, Memory, Chris van Wyk explores the themes of traumatic memory, motherhood, and home, with reference to an event in the speaker’s childhood which leaves his mother severely injured.
The poem begins with a description of a happy, relaxed kitchen scene. The speaker is playing on the floor; his baby brother sits at the table; his mother is cooking. We get the impression that this is a happy household. One can assume that they are not wealthy – the mother is cooking on a primus and they are using candles, so they probably cannot afford electricity. In addition to this, the speaker declares the family “rich” when he sees the large vetkoek that look “like bloated gold coins”. If they were rich, he would not feel the need to use this imagery. Despite their lack of material wealth, they seem to be rich in other ways, like happiness. The mother keeps the children close by while she cooks, which gives the impression of a close family that enjoys spending time together. The speaker refers to his parents as “Mummy” and “Daddy”. These are terms of affection, as opposed to the detachment of mother and father. Therefore, we get the impression that he has great love for his parents. Overall, the theme of home starts out very warm, but the picture of this happy home is tainted by the coming trauma.
The traumatic memory discussed in this poem is that – when a pan falls and sends a stream of boiling oil towards her baby – the mother stretches her arm out to stop it from reaching Derek. In protecting her baby, she causes severe harm to herself. Her “savage scream” creates an image of how intense her pain must be. We know that there is a large amount of oil and that it is extremely hot, because it is described as a “seething flood”. The speaker mentions that he has never written this memory down before, and implies that it is because it was too painful. Further evidence of this is presented in the final stanza, when he says that her wound “cauterizes my childhood like a long scar”. This event is so traumatic that it is sealed in his memory, the way her wound is sealed by burning. The “long scar” tells us that this image never leaves him. It will leave him traumatised forever, in the same way that the incident will leave her scarred forever.
Motherhood is a strong theme in this poem, as a mother’s love is the reason for the incident that occurs. Out of love for her son, and a desire to protect him, this mother will do anything – including harm herself – to keep him safe. This is why she throws herself in front of the oil before it reaches him. Derek is described as a “twittering bird” and we are told he is sucking on a dummy. Portraying him as a little bird makes him seem very small and fragile. We can assume that he is quite young and therefore even more in need of protection. The speaker is a bit older, and can recognise danger and run away from it. Derek, however, needs to be told to move away. Even while she is in excruciating pain, the mother remains calm, “so as not to ruffle his feathers”. We can see that she takes her role as a mother very seriously, and readily accepts the primary mission of motherhood: keep your children safe.
Overall, the themes of home, traumatic memory, and motherhood are vividly present in Memory. The use of strong imagery aids in expressing both sides of this memory: the happy family, content with their lot, and the memory that has traumatised the speaker since childhood.