Annabel Banks, “Recognition”

Recognition (from Eunoia Review)
Annabel Banks

I’d told you that my brain can’t capture faces,
leaves me blank and reaching without context

clues, some shade of hair or hat, so you waved.
Thank you. It gives me a lift. Some cog connects

to give pleasure from looking at one who said I looked
a pleasure, and saw a glimmer of something else

underneath—but that’s for future walks and waves.
For now, I’m happy to be happy at the memory

of my brain’s happiness to see you, always-new man,
whatever you look like. However you’re made.

Comment:

What a wonderful love poem! “My brain can’t capture faces,” says the speaker. On the one hand, I remember times I liked someone and thought I saw them everywhere. I knew their face so well that I confused it with every other face. On the other hand, our speaker has depicted herself as having a very curious sensory problem. She seems a counterfactual in a philosophical experiment, one run by an extreme skeptic. “What if there were a person who couldn’t recognize faces?” feels very close to “What if we’re all just brains in vats, fed information by a supercomputer?” The latter counterfactual typically concerns how we can or cannot prove the existence of external reality; it ultimately focuses on how certain propositions may or may not establish facts. The former starts with the impossibility of establishing a set of facts, a set of facts that has a larger, philosophical relevance. Is not capturing faces the same as not being able to truly see beyond oneself?

I have to say, this poem puts analytic philosophy to good use. I almost want to go back to writing on Wittgenstein. How is it that completely absurd questions end up clarifying language? In this case, if not being able to truly see beyond oneself is a problem, it isn’t a moral problem. Selfishness is not blindness; one can be blind, earnest, generous. Our speaker is grateful for anything that allows her a moment of recognition. “Some shade of hair or hat” might or might not help her acknowledge someone, but what definitely helps is activity, a sign directed at her: “so you waved.”

In this counterfactual, love emerges from putting the self somewhat together. She articulates the wholeness she’s experiencing by making some connection through her perception:

Some cog connects

to give pleasure from looking at one who said I looked
a pleasure, and saw a glimmer of something else

underneath—but that’s for future walks and waves.

It helps that there’s a lover involved, that the speaker is a beloved (“I looked a pleasure”), but it isn’t hard for us readers to detect the immense joy in just having a “cog” connect. Those of us going through severe health problems know how exhilarating the mere prospect of normalcy can be. Here, having a crush, being crushed on – it’s simply fun to know the brain is processing the moment. There’s a chance at a much greater depth, of getting that much more out of life.

The poem ends on an even more generous note:

For now, I’m happy to be happy at the memory

of my brain’s happiness to see you, always-new man,
whatever you look like. However you’re made.

The speaker takes the problem she has recognizing faces and turns it into a virtue for herself and her own love. She will always see the beloved as someone new. This means she could care less at the same time she cares the utmost about how he’s “made.” Maybe he can’t recognize faces, either. His faults don’t matter when there’s joy in simply thinking about him.