Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Friday, February 22, 2008

Unique But Constant

For some reason, I'm intrigued by the idea that, or the phenomenon whereby, each day all of us in modern, mobile societies see several, many, perhaps even hundreds of people precisely once in our lives; the moment when we encounter them and they us is vivid. That is, the sensory information about them is clear and accurate. Moments, minutes, or hours later, however, all trace of them is gone from our minds, our sense of experience, our memories, and all trace of us is gone from their minds, senses of experience, and memories. These encounters are unique, but the phenomenon is virtually constant--a steady stream of once-only, momentary encounters that are quite real--particular and concrete--but then gone, as if they were unreal.

This situation was true even in the micro-town in which I grew up. In Winter, if we went into town, we would know all the people we saw. They would at least be acquaintances we'd seen before, and we would at least know their names and a bit about them. (This circumstance is one of many reasons the pace of life is so slow in micro-towns; people have to talk to each other; deliberation is required.) Just as likely, we'd know them well, share a history with them. But in summer, when tourists streamed through town, we might encounter people exactly once, so even in an extremely rural, remote town, the automobile brought this unusual everyday anonymity, this constant flow of unique encounters, into play.

I think philosophers, psychologists, or neurologists are better suited to write about this subject than a poet, or at least better suited than this particular poet. But I gave it a whack anyway, more or less to get it out of my system:


People we see once: flood of faces, coats,
collars--on avenues and plazas, in markets,
theaters, bars, banks, hospitals. A bent

shape hoeing weeds: one of us saw it once
one place one time from a train: This
is an example but only of itself. Its

singularity can’t be transposed. Imagine
you remember the person who interested you
terribly in that café that morning that city.

Sure it happened, but you don’t remember
because once was not in fact enough. People
we see once are our lives: Forgetting

them (we must), we lose whole arenas
of the lived. Even ghosts return, but not
this vast mass of once-only-noticed

which composes medium and matrix
of our one time here. We are adjacent and
circumstantial to strangers, just one jostle

of flux away from knowing next to everything
about their lives. The river of moments takes
a different channel; the one moment is nothing now.

The once-only appear, then appear to go
to an Elsewhere that defines us. They go on
to get to know who they get to know.

Their lives are theoretically real to us, like
subatomic particles. To them their lives
are practically real to them. From their

view, ours are not. We know they were there,
vivid strangers, because they always are,
every day. Like a wreath floating

on the ocean, memory marks a space
abandoned. In large measure life is
recall of spaces occupied. History

consists of someone who insists on being
remembered, someone who insists on
remembering, combinations of both. Familiarity

and routine join to work methodically; they
manufacture things in recall. Vivid strangers are
incidentally crucial, indigenous to a

present moment that is like a mist
over a meadow, rising, evaporating
just when we arrive, past as we are present.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

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