Proust’s Madeleine

Somebody has given my
Baby daughter a box of
Old poker chips to play with.
Today she hands me one while
I am sitting with my tired
Brain at my desk. It is red.
On it is a picture of
An elk’s head and the letters
B.P.O.E.—a chip from
A small town Elks’ Club. I flip
It idly in the air and
Catch it and do a coin trick
To amuse my little girl.
Suddenly everything slips aside.
I see my father
Doing the very same thing,
Whistling “Beautiful Dreamer,”
His breath smelling richly
Of whiskey and cigars. I can
Hear him coming home drunk
From the Elks’ Club in Elkhart
Indiana, bumping the
Chairs in the dark. I can see
Him dying of cirrhosis
Of the liver and stomach
Ulcers and pneumonia,
Or, as he said on his deathbed, of
Crooked cards and straight whiskey,
Slow horses and fast women.

– Kenneth Rexroth


You probably know about the madeleine episode Proust had that’s referenced in the title and have had your own moment of being overwhelmed by memory, stepping back in time because of a trigger. I love the imagery in this poem, the sense of continuity across generations. It reminded me of Roethke’s poem My Papa’s Waltz.

You can read bios of Rexroth here and here. There’s an entire section devoted to him here.

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