Mnemonic: A Book of Trees
November 4, 2013
Review By Lauren Harding
In Mnemonic: A Book of Trees Teresa Kishkan explores how our concept of self is intimately connected to the places we have experienced. Kishkan describes how places are sensed and experienced, and how these place-specific sensory moments become intertwined with highly personal memories. Kishkan’s primary subject is neither biographical nor arboreal, but rather the delicate intertwining between self and environment. Kishkan takes Bachelard’s poetics of space outside of conventionally domestic spaces into the forest. She explores how “home” is not only indoor domestic space but is merged with the non-human environment to create an ecology of memory. Kiskan uses ten different species of trees as mnemonics for different experiences in her own personal history. For example, olive trees shape her memories of youthful travels in Greece, and she takes the trembling poplar as a means to explore the tensions between shared roots and disparate paths that characterize familial relations.
Kishkan is a poet by trade, and her poetic skill is evident in the evocative imagery of her writing style. That is one of the strengths of this work. Trees are not mere memory prompts, but instead are described in ways that evoke sounds, smells, colour, and light. Trees serve as an active lens through which memories are both formed and viewed. Kishkan draws on the senses to add depth to descriptions of her personal experiences. I found this highly engaging, and it is this aspect of Kishkan’s book that I think makes it of interest in more than a literary sense, as she explores, using herself as an example, how memories are co-formed by both human actors in an environment and by the environment itself. Trees are not passive memory absorbers, but rather shape and form both the memory itself and the act of remembering. Kishkan is a poet writing a memoir (of sorts), and her text occasionally falls into the traps common to that genre in focusing on intimate details that are of great interest to the author, but of little interest to the reader. However, her distinctive method of addressing personal recollections helps her avoid this folly, for the most part.
Kishkan’s almost autoethnographic analysis of the links between self, environment, and memory will make Mnemonic of interest to scholars studying phenomenology, place-making, and human-environmental relations. Furthermore, the book is worthy of the attention of those who are particularly interested in the relationship between settler-Canadian subjectivities and the British Columbian environment, as it also looks at the search for roots in settler-Canadian culture. It subtly explores the uneasiness of Canadian connections to place due to a fractured history of immigration, colonialism, migration, and displacement. Kishkan does not address these issues directly, but rather through the microcosm of her own experiences growing up in Canada and of constantly moving throughout her childhood until finally “settling” in British Columbia. Her memoir is a case study of the uncomfortable negotiations involved in exploring the relationship between self and place in a settler society founded upon displacement and change.
Bachelard, Gaston. 1994. The Poetics of Space: A Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places. Revised Edition. Boston: Beacon Press.
Mnemonic: A Book of Trees
By Theresa Kishkan
Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2011. 248 pp. $19.95 paper.