A Machine for Remembering
by Justen Ahren
41 poems, 80 pages
Art: 11 black and white photos
Publisher: Shanti Arts LLC
Reviewed by Wilda Morris
A Machine For Remembering by Justen Ahren is an important volume in the genre of witness
poetry. Disturbed by images of refugees from the Syrian civil war and from violence and
despotism elsewhere, Ahren left the comfort of his home and family on Martha's Vineyard
(where he was Poet Laureate) to volunteer at the Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos Island in
In "When I need God," which I believe is the spiritual heart of this book, Ahren writes, "I let
listening be my service." Ahren's pen recorded the juxtaposition of violence, torture, and flight
against images of homes and loved ones left and lost, sex, and small acts of kindness.
Listening opened not only Ahren's ears, but also his eyes and heart. His camera recorded a
cornfield after refugees trekked through it, a "Life Jacket Graveyard," and other haunting scenes.
There are eleven black and white prints in the book.
I pondered the significance of the title before resorting to dictionary definitions of "machine." In
the on-line Merriam-Webster, I found this: "an assemblage . . . of parts that transmit forces,
motion, and energy one to another in a predetermined manner." In light of this definition, the
title seems quite appropriate. Ahren's book is an assemblage of multiple poems with identical
titles: "A Machine for Remembering," "Giacometti's Figures," "Motetti," "Curfew and Pears,"
"Fragment: East 2nd Avenue," and "Things I Didn't Know I Loved." They generally do have
subtitles or numbers to distinguish them. There are also four titles beginning with a date,
followed by "from a Photo." These are not section titles; rather the poems in each set are
scattered through the book. These intermingled sets work together like a machine to develop
energy and transmit memorable images to the reader.
After I read the book cover to cover, rereading many layered poems to understand them at a
greater depth and processing my feelings, I read the book again. For the second reading, I began
with "When I Need God" which has a title unique to itself. Then I looked at the poems with each
different overarching title as a chapbook. I read all the poems entitled "A Machine for
Remembering," then all of "Giacometti's Figures," and so on. Then I read the book cover to
cover again. You might want to consider doing the same.
"Giacometti's Figures" are especially haunting. Ahren has sculpted "figures" with words, figures
as emaciated as Giacometti's statues: "A body in the street / a child's naked, slender body," "a
woman on her knees in the rain / in a puddle in the street," and the one who says, "I've learned to
live here, where no one has ever said her name."
"Curfew and Pears" draws on stories of life under military occupation, beginning when pear
trees were blooming. Here too, the images are compelling. For example: "Snow through a hole in
the roof" and "If I could give my child a glass of milk, / instead of butcher paper to lick. // "If I
could give my child pears."
The poems entitled "Fragment: East 2nd Street" may not refer to any particular 2nd Street, but
they made me think of the historical diversity of East 2nd Street (and East Village) in New York
City which, over the years, has been home to immigrants and refugees from many places. The
word "fragment" is especially significant. The narrator of these poems "has cowered between a
wall and a bed, / self who has fled and remembers fleeing." In this poem, the "self" with palpable
loneliness is discovered "standing in the street light" by a lover "who pulled me down onto the
roots / under the oak, and lifted her skirt" after which a bird sang. Physical release—but even
more—intimacy with another human being—is as necessary to refugees as to the rest of us. Even
as "[t]he city is absorbing the dead," this intimacy continues: life juxtaposed with death as the
world fragments. "To remain human night after night / . . . / we devote ourselves / to the
stations of our zippers, // to dressing and undressing one another."
The poems labeled "Motetti" are appropriately brief and almost dialogic, as if the woman and
child speak to the mind of the narrator. Three poems labeled "Things I Didn't Know I Loved"
seem more like the voice of the poet himself, with a heightened awareness of what could be lost
should he be uprooted as the refugees at Moria were. The moving poems titled with dates and
"from a Photo" are as different as photos.
The book begins and ends with poems titled "A Machine for Remembering." This section begins
in the voice of the poet: "but I am beginning to understand / the violence I have been given" (p.
10). The subtitles of several of these poems reflect what the witness wants remembered:
"Occupation," "Fleeing," "Hunger," "Detained" (including torture). It ends with "Count," a
poem that moves from "The petals that have fallen from the pears" through "the planes overhead,
the seconds // to the thunder of bombs" to
men like me
who have fled their homes and their beds
and are standing in their muddy shoes
by the gate, with iris tubers—
dug before the war—
in their pockets, which they are waiting
to replant here.
There is pathos in the hope represented by those bulbs: the hopes of the refugees who want their
lives to count in a seemingly uncaring world, witnessed (in multiple senses of that word) by the
poet in exquisite images and fresh language. Would that everyone would read this book and
begin to see refugees as human beings with the same needs, desires and worth as the rest of us, not
as disposable bodies to be discounted.