Trapped in the Present Tense: Meditations on American Memory by Colette Brooks (image courtesy Counterpoint)

Do we capture our memories? Or do they capture us?

When you think about it — and almost every sentence and image in Colette Brooks’s new book should make the reader helpless not to think hard — the answer becomes obvious. It is both. Memories make us, and then we provide memories for others.

The essays that constitute Trapped in the Present Tense are loosely, thereby expansively, arrayed around distinct but related themes. Among them are the changing ways we process events, which are essentially future memories; the meaning their visual residues later take on; how we view, and are viewed by, the increasing number of lenses that are trained on us; and, always, what is left behind in culture, history, and the individual when those events sweep over us. Brooks explores these ideas on both a macro level — what the onset of the Age of the Mass Shooting meant to Americans, and how and why it coincided with the rise of a new type of warfare intended to be conducted at an emotional and literal distance — as well as an intimate one. The tone shifts from reverse to drive between these layers. The tragedies that have serially struck her family are recalled obliquely, as if something so painfully stunning can only be approached with poetry’s elision. In another gear entirely, her observations of American culture are delivered in marching cadence, every sentence stark and forceful.

The book’s chapters, most replete with photographic images, are grouped into five sibilant sections: Shooters, Soldiers, Secrets, Statistics, and Snapshots. Her unique claim on each topic by way of family history and personal loss whispers underneath the more stentorian cataloging of facts. (“On average, women have 41 items in their wardrobes they never wear, and online shoppers of all genders leave $7.6 million every minute in abandoned shopping carts.”) She drops into a quieter register to reconstruct the lives of private individuals, say, using the scrapbook and diary of a sailor in WWII. The people she describes first seem distant, as if the subject of a magazine profile. It comes as a shock to realize, only later, that she has been writing about her sister, her nephew, her uncle or grandmother or parents. These stories’ ache emerges retroactively — appropriate for an inquiry into the workings of memory.

Brooks uses the structure as well as the subjects of her book to demonstrate how history unites us all, in private and public, from a young suicide and a dying mother to Walter Cronkite to Chelsea Manning. Each story is embedded in another and another, until the life of that sailor is connected to the deployment of the atom bomb, then to the notion of historic relativity (the Doomsday Clock moves forward, then moves back), and finally to the function of secrecy in general. The author herself is the link between them all. Trapped in the Present Tense proposes the idea that we, too, possess memories that precisely position each of us in what is otherwise a great wash of time.

From the days of the Zapruder film — more specifically, the moment the taboo frame 313 (“the one that shows an explosive pink mist”) is finally let loose publicly — we were living in a new age. It’s one in which we remain aware that “no image, once captured on camera, can be suppressed forever.” Unnumbered people today count on it, and in fact make a handsome living from it. Others should know the minute they open their big mouths on the Long Island Rail Road or a flight or in the parking lot of the grocery, they are going to be videoed and have only a few hours on social media before they’re identified, their employer tagged, and the announcement of their firing made public. As Brooks notes, “Digital immortality might not appeal to everyone; there would always be those who chose to live off the grid, which in the twenty-first century amounted to a kind of death in itself.” But as the entire project of Trapped in the Present Tense proves, if we leave no documentary evidence behind, by what means can we ever be apprehended by memory? To be known to have existed?

The section called Snapshots comprises a visual essay exploring similar perennial mysteries, among them miniatures and memorials, preservation and happenstance. It is a prose poem that could well be titled “What If.” It is not the most poignant piece in the book — though all are poignant — but it reiterates a recurrent idea: death is witnessed by the camera eye (or by the memorialist, who may also be a diarist or a conservator), then the film is given to a later age for processing. In assessing the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, Brooks might be describing her own work:

. . . like thoughts gathered in no particular order, or pictures tossed into a shoebox. The curatorial impulse could be intentional. The language exists for such an organizational principle: eclectic, motley, raggle-taggle. You might say it’s a model of the mind itself in operation.

Brooks never condescends to the reader by spelling out what she’s getting at. She leaves it to us to make of it what we will. Opacity as extreme generosity: extremely refreshing. Not to mention transgressive, given the literary world’s consolidating conservatism. The result is a work of literature that’s beautiful, uncategorizable, sad, and challenging. In other words, a book that’s very near life itself.

Trapped in the Present Tense: Meditations on American Memory (2022) by Colette Brooks is published by Counterpoint and is available at independent bookstores and online.

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Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of five books, including The Place You Love Is Gone. Her reviews and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Daily Beast, Washington Post,...