“Where does a thought go when it’s forgotten?” —Sigmund Freud

when a thought is forgotten
where does it go?
take for example the thought of
a crow upon a dead tree branch—

on the way to forgotten
suppose it turns to vulcanite
then Vulcan’s godly fire
then to a lover’s face in candle light
before it sputters to blank indigo—

does it then drown as if
swept by a riptide or an undertow
to distances or deep below the rushed
oncoming waves of other thoughts?

drowned and yet not dead
as zero is not nothing
a place-holder in a place
so low as to seem bottomless—
the past as embryo?

this much we know:
though it may sleep for eons
it awaits a  resurrection—
there is every chance it will
return unbidden unexpectedly

upon a dead tree branch— a crow



71 responses »

  1. I dreamed the other night that you were going to quote Freud, and so I booked a session with my therapist.

    Being in a semilucid state, I felt compelled to ask Mr. Freud (what a coincidence him having a name like that!) a few questions.

    Where does a couch go when it’s forgotten, Mr. Freud?

    Where does mumbo jumbo masquerading as verifiable science go when it’s forgotten, Mr. Freud?

    Needless to say a follow up appointment was never booked.

    But there was one hopeful exchange (which unfortunately turned to mush): “…then to a lover’s face in candle light before it sputters to blank indigo.”

    Mr. Freud and I debated this line (as I had an advance copy of the poem–he was astonished) and I argued it was quite beautiful. Mr. Freud, not being a poet, had no real opinion–he kept coming back to my childhood and my fascination for mushy things. Charlatan!

    • I’m glad you escaped the mumbo jumbo of that charlatan, Prospero, and you have proven the point that a forgotten thought can be resurrected and return to crow. Thanks to your question, I am now thinking about long forgotten couches, ugly upholstery designs, stains, sprung-springs, torn cushions, various savory and unsavory overnight guests of the past, and the quirky ways we got rid of them—the guests and the couches.

      I am happy, nevertheless, that you liked that line about the lover’s face in candle light; that is always worth recalling. Do take care—there are still plenty of those charlatans around, only now they’re called experts—and thank you for your lovely story and comment.

      • But Cynthia, people will now want to know more. How many people have you quietly and quirkily pushed over the edge? How many have fallen asleep on your iniquitous couch never to awake? How many guests have checked into Jobin Motel never to check out? You’re not a taxidermist as well as a calligrapher-slash-charlatan, are you? So many unanswered questions. Your readers will want to know the whole story. I myself with bated breath await. (Notice the poet’s penchant for reversing word order–and for resurrecting crows, among other things.)

        • … with ‘bated’ breath, ‘Bates’ Motel–simply brilliant clandestine punnery (the poet also has a long history of inventing words). My wit-o-meter is on life support.

          • People are so nosey, aren’t they? But we charlatans must maintain a certain aesthetic distance, or the jig is up. Whole forests have been destroyed to provide the paper inked by snooping university professors in pursuit of trivia about the personal life behind poems. I think there’s even a useless academic controversy about the worthiness of that.

            So I will make no further revelations except to say that occasionally, when a funny noise is emitted by the sprinkling shower head above my shampoo-covered tresses, I do draw the curtain a little to make sure Norman Bates is not just there waiting to kill me. Your Mr. Freud might call that some kind of syndrome, I’m quite sure. But it’s just a thought….a crow on a dead tree branch.

            • No further revelations. Smart move. My lips are sealed. (How much time do you think you need to destroy the evidence?)(Please note that I am not implying that you have done anything underhand, but I can’t seem to shake from my naturally suspicious mind the fact that the collective noun for crows is a ‘murder’ of crows–a classic example,I submit, of a poem trying to speak to us. )

              If you need a good therapist I can recommend one. He seems to suddenly have some time on his hands. He knows his ‘psycho’analytical (pun definitely intended, as nothing is accidental) gibberish, but has a bad habit of splitting his infinitives).

              • I should tell you: I don’t do therapists. (the-rapists). But you have caused me an enjoyable side-tracked visit to my dog-eared copy of James Lipton’s book (1968) in which he lists many of the medieval “terms of venery” hunters used to apply to groups of animals….murder of crows, pride of lions, sleuth of bears, etc. These venereal terms (not to be confused with the diseases ascribed to some worshipers of Venus) are a fascinating study, and though not even a college of cardinals could have predicted I would be thinking about this just now, I have been delightfully side-tracked by you. Your wit-o-meter must be in fine fettle. I can only wish you an exaltation of larks!

                • Ah, good strategy. Deflect attention from the crime scene(s) by tittupping boisterously into the field of quizzical collective nouns. And thank you for the exaltation.

  2. I struggled with this one, Cynthia. I didn’t play the sound until I’d tried unsuccessfully several times to understand it. Your reading helped a lot. Profound as Dr Freud

    • This particular poem is of a type I don’t regularly post, Derrick, but keep in my “at home” archives because indeed it doesn’t lend itself to the quick and light kind of reading most appropriate to a blog. Once in a while, though, I toss one in. 🙂 Thank you so much for your frankness about the puzzlement and I’m glad the audio helped to dispel some of it. That kind of response is invaluable to me!

  3. I love this, Cynthia. It seems as if you are conversing with the Wallace Stevens of “13 Ways” and “The Snow Man”. It’s very powerful on its own, as I banish thoughts of Stevens and reread it.

    And how I would love to know–or even have the slightest hint–at the answer to your opening question, a reversal of Freud’s language. I remember a lot. But are there buried memories or are there memories that have flown away forever? And your final line! 5 stresses–or 4 and a half, at least.

    • I almost remind myself of old Wallace, too, Natalie, and that’s a bit frightening. There’s a state of mind—not sure what to call it—that results in this kind of poem sometimes, and one is left wondering where it came from. The thing sits in a notebook and when it is later re-discovered seems an alien object with no recollection of having been written or having labored over it as is the more normal situation. I’m very happy to know you like it, because I have no real sense of personal connection to it, and value your experience and perspective. Your comment, as always, is a treasure.

  4. An eternal question Cynthia – posed so prophetically and, keeping the thought alive as you do so dramatically, even if temporarily forgotten, maybe its return reverses reality and brings life to the branch, but then I wonder for the crow and its mystical significance!
    Lovely, thought provoking (excuse the pun) piece – not to be forgotten I fear!

    • I don’t know a great deal about the crow symbolism in native American culture. I know it’s symbolic of magic, prophetic insight, sometimes death and dark witchcraft, even the void or core of creation. My favorite characterization of the crow beyond totem and spirit guide is the archetype of the trickster. There probably was a trickster crow who inspired this poem; that’s the only explanation for it! Thanks, Rob.

  5. This was a poser for me. My brain wanted to investigate the question as a neuropsychologist might and kept jibbing and refusing your train of thought as I imagined the synapses lighting up. A second reading/listening carried me through. I love the line ‘as zero is not nothing’ all ways round.

    • Now I know you know a thing or two about neuropsychology and that would certainly give you a unique response to this poem. Without any such knowledge, I humbly wrote it as it occurred to me—as language and thought unfolded from the initial quotation—based on personal experience and intuitive sources unknown. I’m glad it did yield something on second reading and listening. I’ve never ascribed to the notion that poetry should be “difficult” so am always surprised when readers find that so, about one of my poems. I do love that idea about zero too!

  6. This is the sort of question which intrigues my husband. Here in Austin we have Grackles instead of Crows. They are rather an ugly bird with an even uglier voice possibly a memory best forgotten. I enjoyed the metaphor of waves but I’m not sure that I got the reference to an embryo.

    • We have a lot of grackles around here, too. The poor things don’t have the glamorous cachet of those symbolic crows, do they! I’m glad you enjoyed the imagery of the waves, Jane. As for the idea of the embryo…..we normally think of it in terms of what it will develop into in the future; I was going for an almost oxymoronic suggestion of the past having a future, if that makes any sense at all to you! Bruce’s comment below about the potency of matter touches on the same kind of suggestion. Thank you very much for reading and for your good question.

    • Good old uncle Thomas seemed to understand it all, didn’t he? To think of the death of something—even of a thought—as being reduced to a potency is exactly what I think I may have, in part, been getting at,in this poem. Thanks Bruce!

  7. I think crows are magical critters and the idea that a crow can appear like a forgotten thought seems perfectly reasonable to me. The past as embryo – that’s a good thought, too. The past is what gave birth to us, eh? Another brain-shaker, Cynthia.

    • I am so glad you think this is reasonable, Sue. As you know from your own experiments with the written word, you often don’t know where things like embryonic pasts and crow thoughts come from, but there they are! Merci beaucoup for the nice words!

  8. Listening to you read is just wonderful Cynthia. Thoughts are so elusive sometimes, I love the way they just turn up in their own sweet time, unbidden. The crow is such a strong image on its branch.

    • Yes, crows are a most fascinating bird. I wonder if the original peoples of your country gave it as much symbolic meaning as the Native Americans have….Thank you, as always, Barbara.

  9. I think I can understand this one Cynthia – kind of. I’ve read it a few times and Im getting there. However my concentration levels at the moment are equal to that of a 2 year old with this awful back pain.

    I left this comment for a while and just came back to it, listened to you reading and I totally understand it now!

    I actually have thinking times such as this but could never express them! You do it perfectly! I now love this poem! 😄 xx

    • Thank you for your encouragement, Chris, which is always there. I can imagine that the major thought just now is …when will this !@#$%& back pain cease and desist! It’s too bad we can’t cure our ills by thinking just the right thoughts. I’ve tried that, but it rarely works. So I hope soon the sun breaks through on your situation and the shadows flee away. And I hope you are able to enjoy your garden, at least to some degree. Take care of your sweet self!

      • Thank you Cynthia. I’m making an appointment at the doctors on Monday to see if there is something I should or should not be doing to aid recovery. It’s a whole month since I fell and it feels like a year. For some puzzling reason I thought the pain would magically disappear while we were away on holiday last week. We didn’t go far, only an hour’s drive, and the bed was so back injury unfriendly we even came home for a night so I could sleep in my own bed. Not my favourite holiday but I wasn’t about to let MS have all its own way and keep me from going. 😊 xx
        PS – apologies for wandering from the subject of my comment, which should of course read ‘but’ and not ‘it’ in the last line. I blame the pain 😄. There has to be a perk somewhere 😄

  10. Very philosophical … maybe too much for me this morning as discussions on my current Explore post had gone philosophical this morning … now my brain is a bit snarly.

  11. I like this one Cynthia – so where does our thoughts go? The ending, though it may sleep for eons
    it awaits a resurrection—
    there is every chance it will
    return unbidden unexpectedly

  12. I pushed send before I was done posting – I kind of like how you take us on this imaginary flight of the thought flying about, where it lands no one knows. Just imagine the universe filled with billions of thoughts just waiting to resurface, wow talk about congestion.

    • I am intrigued by that last thought of yours, Mary…..of the billions of thoughts waiting to resurface. Don’t the cyber geeks tell us that all the stuff on our computers never gets totally erased from the universe and is also “out there” floating around forever? It’s all quite something to ponder….and here I am, contemplating one crow on a dead tree branch…we do cherish our own little worlds in this big universe, don’t we? Thanks, as always, for your visit and your own interesting thoughts!

      • Oh yes that one poor crow, but consider as you said, of the billions of thoughts waiting to resurface. Here is something for you to ponder. Years ago when working a corporate job (telecommuting from the house) I had problems on my corporate laptop and the technician took control of my computer from wherever he was located and made an incredible mistake – he WIPED OUT my entire ‘C’ drive, I’m telling you nothing was left! I’m getting to my point, the technology department found a software that they installed on my computer and it totally recovered everything!! So cyber geeks have one over on us – never believe you deleted something on your computer you don’t want others to see, because it never really left the universe!

        Talk about getting off track, but in a way ~

        • I have heard of that possibility before, but never a real example as you’ve given here. So none of it ever goes away forever….hmm..that would include not only the mistakes, but also all the lies that have been told. Talk about space junk! Except in cases like yours, where retrieval was a good thing, we’re probably better off not retrieving most of it in the long run. 🙂

          • Actually they were able to retrieve everything that resided in the computer from the prior day and back two weeks(and since I had a total back up before the two weeks, I pretty much got everything back. The immediate 24 hours was lost. But still, yeah so consider it space junk – it’s all out there.

  13. Hi Cynthia,S.Freud was brilliant master of hypnotism,but l thought the crow is a smart bird won’t fly to a dead branch.You made the thought travel through times but never to rest its somewhere like the internet.Amazing rhyming beside the picture you created with your words.Jalal and

    • The original Native American tribes believed that the crow was an omen of good luck, and found it to be a very intelligent bird. The raven, a slightly larger black bird, was seen as a similar symbol by some of them. These birds were spirit guides to many tribes, especially those of the western US where you have been traveling! Thank you, Jalal.

  14. I do like crows – such smart creatures. Do thoughts have stasis as in a crow upon a dead tree branch? Mine don’t, but they do return to repeat the picture at the oddest times. Neuronal ruts are a b¥gg€r to repair. (I tried to listen to your wonderful voice on this one, but Apple is having none of it!)

    • I don’t think thoughts have stasis, though the thought of a crow on a dead tree branch might come and go and always be the same. It’s mostly an image, and probably only it’s significance would change. Thanks, bb.

      (That’s odd about not being able to access the audio. Of course it is totally keyed to wordpress, and though I use my mac to place and edit it there, I’m not sure how it interfaces with Apple in general, on other devices.)

  15. I read this several times and each time I noticed a new turn of phrase I liked. I recognized the image of the oncoming waves of subsequent thoughts. Perhaps thoughts just wash away to land somewhere else some other time. In any event, I do like the crow image.

    • Glad you like the crow image, Lisa. It can be metaphorically complex, but as a visual image it’s pretty simple and clear. (I’m reminded of an old teaser: ” don’t think about a pink elephant,” and of course that makes you think of one!) No one else has offered your hypothesis of thoughts landing “somewhere else some other time”….another possibility to ponder! Thanks for reading and, of course, for your comment.

      • I look forward to your poems. While I understand the layered-ness of imagery, I tend not to overthink it (crows, corbies, how many, whoa, suddenly I’m not reading the poem anymore!). Does it speak to me? What is it saying? And, oooh what nice turn of phase to express something. Of course, one can’t read everything that way, but I’ve found that freed of classroom interpretations, many poems become so much more universal, allowing an immediate emotional call and response. Goodness, I need to stop before this becomes an essay 😉

        • It makes me smile to read of your approach to a poem, and glad to have you as a reader. In some quarters a lot of baggage is taken into a poem that can indeed make it what it’s not, but rather what the reader thinks is important or “intellectual”….those dang “classroom interpretations!” People learn to dislike poetry because they think there’s a correct way to read it which seems a mystery to them. It’s the old syndrome: if I don’t “get it”, it must be because I’m stupid. Good poems can be rich enough to yield many different interpretations and it’s sad when intelligent people have been discouraged by their schooling from enjoying them. On the other hand, we live in times not exactly hospitable to the slow, quiet attention conducive to getting the most out of serious poetry. Now I’ll stop, too, before this becomes an essay! 🙂

          • Such a lovely in-person conversation this would be! I always think of Yeats. Yes, so good to know about Maude Gonne and 1916, but without knowing that, there are some marvelous love poems, beginning infatuation through nasty break up. Or the Four Quartets, which I read every few years, and which put me into a trance with the beauty of the language. It’s the layers, as with good literature (I first encountered Heart of Darkness as a ripping adventure story) that keep us coming back–as with learning some of the odd cadences in William Carlos Williams’ poetry may have come from his Spanish mother’s speech patterns…So good to have this exchange!

  16. ….your book is so nourishing, I can hardly go to the next when one alone keeps me filled with so many feelings and resurrected thoughts–so yes, I do know where the crow goes–it flies into ‘of a certain age’ and feathers forth such other memories and thoughts that one is left with a congress of ravens, a clamour of rooks, a mustering of crows.

    • I am sitting here on a Sunday afternoon chuckling and so grateful to have you as a reader, Lance. So glad, too, that you’re enjoying the book…though I don’t mean to crow about it. You have so many beautiful miniature paintings of birds….I wonder what you would do with your congress of ravens or a crow on a dead tree branch in watercolour . (I hadn’t heard of a mustering of crows before, but it does seem to fit my poem. The collective noun for crows in James Lipton’s book is a “murder” of crows, as Prospero pointed out, above).At any rate, thank you for a most amusing and delightful comment!

  17. This is brilliant, Cynthia. You are such a good poet. Having read your book I can attest to that with a sense of gratefulness.

    The symbolism of the poem is especially powerful. Unlike Wallace Stevens, although I love his poetry, there is an emotional depth caused by the symbols used that draws the poem beyond the audacity of conscience and thought.

    “take for example the thought of
    a crow upon a dead tree branch ”

    Crows are symbolic of men in dark coats hunched around a hillock while evening descends. They are highly intelligence, somewhat grasping after bright things, but dark, and in this original thought answering an unanswerable question, a single crow is on a dead branch. Then

    “suppose it turns to vulcanite
    then Vulcan’s godly fire
    then to a lover’s face in candle light
    before it sputters to blank indigo—”

    Vulcan is the god of fire, of volcanoes. So the hunching of a crow on a dead branch metamorphoses in the poem into images of fire, which leads to images of lover’s face in candle light before it sputters to blank indigo, the darkness of the crow upon the dead branch, the nothingness of the question:

    “when a thought is forgotten
    where does it go?”

    But does it, the lover’s face, candlelight, idea of crow, dead branch, Vulcan, blank indigo,

    “then drown as if
    swept by a riptide or an undertow
    to distances or deep below the rushed
    oncoming waves of other thoughts?”

    Is the idea of all of these:

    “drowned and yet not dead
    as zero is not nothing
    a place-holder in a place
    so low as to seem bottomless—”

    Then the crux of the entire poem:

    “the past as embryo?

    drowned and yet not dead
    as zero is not nothing
    a place-holder in a place
    so low as to seem bottomless—”

    For in the turn of time,

    “though it may sleep for eons
    it awaits a resurrection—”

    And again we have the image:

    “upon a dead tree branch— a crow”
    wrapped in all of the symbolism of that image, of thought, of idea.

    Brilliant. Just brilliant.

    • A surprise, and definitely a treat, to find what I regard as a classic Thomas Davis Poem Exegesis here today! I am always amazed by the amount of time and real care you take in the reading and thinking about a poem. And it is not the time and care of a pedant but that of a lover of poetry who is a poet himself, and understands the complexity of the process. Thank you, Tom, with all my heart.

      I’m glad, too that you enjoyed my book. I am tickled to have now, almost a whole shelf of books by writers I have met here on WordPress….yours, Ethel’s, Ina’s, Christine’s, John Stevens’ Rob McShane’s, for example, and some authors of novels and short stories as well. It’s such fun to know those names on the covers as friends!

      I hope you are well. I have very much enjoyed your recent sonnets. Thank you for those, too.

  18. Well done Cynthia! I closed my eyes while listening and felt myself on a journey through the labyrinths of the brain (Sorry but I am a therapist…) The images you have set in front of us demand our attention and we may have you to blame (or thank) in future work. 🙂 x

    I’ve just clicked the follow button for your blog as your posts have not been coming through consistently. Hopefully this will help and who knows, someday, I may get caught up? 🙂 x

    • I’m sure you’re the good kind of therapist, Léa, who helps people in need!.Hilary (in a comment above) a serious student of neuropsychology, seems to have made the same kind of labyrinthine journey when listening to this one….I’ll just do like everyone else, and blame it on Freud! 🙂

      It’s sometimes difficult to keep up with which blogs I follow only on the reader and which ones I get instant emails from. I change them, occasionally, depending on how often people post (some too often!) and whether I have anything good or helpful to comment on. I do follow you and enjoy both of your sites, even if I sometimes leave only a “like”. Like, for me, means I did pay attention, and I do like, but am not up to commenting immediately…. as you say, there’s that business of trying to get caught up….someday 🙂 Thanks, Léa!

  19. Cynthia, I’ve always tried. Many of my clients were Court ordered which often makes them suspicious of the therapist to begin with. Court ordered or not, we are limited and when one takes no responsibility, stays in denial it does not help. We won’t even go into the ones with duel-diagnosis, drug/alcohol dependency… and so it goes.
    Another reason I am so far behind is some health issues but I don’t think this is the forum and I don’t believe we exchanged email addresses. However, with the current computer situation, I’m really unsure of a few things. Have no worries, I hear from you from time-to-time and that is lovely. There certainly could be a few more hours in the day. Thank you Cynthia
    BTW, I have to tell you, it wasn’t just a labyrinth journey, I think Vincent Price was conducting with his E. Poe voice… 😉

    • Hah! I love Vincent Price! Sorry to hear about health problems…egads, they seem to be stalking all of us; but if you should ever want to email me, my contact address is listed with my gravatar profile. Merci, mon amie!

      • I grew up in a town which had the old building where one of the Poe films was made with Vincent Price. However, I never did go inside. For years it wasn’t accessible. Merci beaucoup mon amie!

  20. Goddamit, EVERY chance. At exactly the wrong moment. Probably because it was indignant at having to clamber through those rushed oncoming waves. Although, I dunno about them, Cynthia: in my case, that particular image is far too complimentary. Small, infrequent ripples, maybe …

    • What a great good laugh you have given me, M-R, at the end of a hard day!….That’s true about thoughts re-appearing at the wrong moment; it happens to me all the time causing me to want to laugh when I ought to be serious, and vice versa. And don’t underestimate those gentler ripples—not to be inundated with waves I consider a a gift of age, wisdom, and who-gives-a-rat’s-anyway…something I daresay we both know about and enjoy!

  21. Cynthia–this is super. Funny we should both write about crows this week. They do hold a special place in the imagination–and as you say, gone, but not really forgotten.

    • Yes, that did give me a chuckle, when I realized you had also posted a poem about crows. I find them ceaselessly fascinating, and quite deserving of all the symbolism and lore that surrounds them….somehow, a parakeet on a dead tree branch would not be the same! Thanks, Melissa.

  22. Hello Cynthia, I am no genius at this at all, but I am drawn to both images equally, that of the crow and the dead tree branch, and it saddens me to think that the “embryo” (this image of the past, the dead branch and the crow) would have within it more life in the crow than the branch. The branch remains dead in both its embryonic state and in its resurrection. Surely, Freud would have something to say about this….?

    • The crow and the branch are a simple mental image that occurred to me. (I saw the crow perched, rather than in flight, but no particular character to the perch–a piece of driftwood, maybe). The image, as a thought-image, can come and go, the question at hand is “where does a thought go?” not “what does this particular image mean?” What any reader chooses to make of the image itself, as some kind of deep, dark “meaning,” is interesting to think about, but beyond any intention of mine in the poem.

  23. That crow will surely have a lot to crow about when he returns like a phoenix to his perch. This explains what crows are always cawing about. They fly in and out of the river Styx.

    • So THAT”S where forgotten thoughts go!….no wonder they keep coming back! I’m not surprised that you, being a lover and connoisseuse of our flying feathery friends would have a perfect answer to the conundrum, Cindy. Thank you!

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