Memory Holds by Kwame Sound Daniels

in conversation with Makshya Tolbert’s Becoming Water in Emergence Magazine

Water was always something I was immersed in. Water held me. Water was me. A bathtub the shape of the human body. In the body, a small ocean.. 

Water holds memory. I know that. I can feel it in the automatic way my muscles expand and contract when I dice garlic, when, even after becoming disabled, I know instinctively how much coriander goes into lentil soup. Water knows. I know. It’s in my mouth, my veins, my eyes.

Brains are elastic because they are water. Water holds memory. The brain cradles that memory. The brain tends to it. Sometimes, if the memory is too much for the water to hold, the brain does not hold it. The brain cannot contain it. But my brain has always held too much. There hasn’t been enough room for me to be. The memory is all that there is.

I am memory because I am water. I am a composite being of reactions. That is all knowledge is: memory and reaction. Water is flexible. The brain is elastic. If you set your finger upon the surface of a pond, it will ripple until the water remembers the shape of your finger, and then it is like it has always known your finger, it has always been that your finger was there. That is because water knows itself. /

Water is flexible. It settles where it must. It finds places to fill naturally. It has a course. Toni Morrison spoke about the way the Mississippi river flooded. Water remembered where it always was, and so naturally tried to return. My people are made of water. We are always trying to return. In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the protagonist flies. That is because he is made of water. He rises with the clouds. Despite how he fucked up, he belonged in the firmament where the ancestors escaped. My people belong in the atmosphere, refracting light through our water droplets, melding together and coming apart and floating and being carried —-weightless. We deserve to not have to carry this weight. But water holds memory. So it will always be with us no matter how much the wind carries us.

Sometimes, our hurt is like a pressure-cooker. The water boils and builds until the memory is locked inside us, until we are bursting with the heat, until we cook and cook and only find release in outbursts. That is how my water was. My water would boil. I would burst. I would scream. My heat was hurtful. I burned to touch. Others burned me when I was touched. That is how it feels to be held, even now. Because my water remembers the heat.

My people drowned in the Atlantic. The Atlantic carried my people. The Atlantic remembers us. We are in the water until the end of the earth. We are carried in the ocean’s denizens, and the ocean’s denizens are consumed. How many of my ancestors have I eaten? How much does my body remember of their pain? Water holds memory. My people know me. My body knows my people. Maybe this is why I feel bugs in my skin: my water remembers their infestations. I am being haunted by my ancestors’ water. I no longer eat fish.

I feel not-quite-here. I feel empty. I feel full. My water holds too much. My water doesn’t have room for me. I keep thinking of the way I can’t think when I’m like this. Like I’m out of my body. Like I am a cloud and my skin is transvective. When my hands touch something it’s like an intrusion, and they have to adjust before they remember what touch is. My hands on my own skin burn. That is because my water remembers the heat. 

Sometimes, the water gets to be too much. The dragging of my own nails across my skin burns. But I itch. Because my skin won’t retain the water. Because the water gets to be too much. Because the water holds memory and my brain won’t forget. I remember everything except sound. I cannot retain sounds. Water doesn’t hold sound well. To remember a song I have to listen to it over and over again until the ripples in my water remember the rippling. I remember everything else. Everything.

I remember what it was like to be in love. I had never felt anything like it before. It was like being at the bottom of the ocean and knowing the water around me would protect me just as easily as it could crush me. It was like all the sound in the world was muted. My feelings ran deep. Undisturbed. They ran warm and cold. And then they didn’t run at all. My feelings sat there, inside my depths, until the water dissolved them. Because my water remembered all the hurts that came with feeling. And there was more hurt that my water could hold than love. It fell out of me, that love. It drained away. And I was left feeling like I had awoken from a dream. But I remember what it was like, to be in love. I’m not sure my water will ever have room to carry that feeling again.

But I love my people. My people-in-the-water. My lost family. I can’t not love them. Because my water knows their water — listen! Do you hear that? My water is moving. It’s too full to slosh. But you can hear the vibrations, can’t you? Can’t you?

Water holds memory. Water holds me. I never drink enough water. I think that’s because I have too much. I salivate so easily. If I hold my mouth open it drips. It falls from me. No matter how little water I’ve drank. I think I am an endless well of water. It’s all the memory I can’t talk about trying to escape.

Listen. I know what you’re thinking. How can you remember everything? But I can. I remember my birth mother’s arms around me. I remember the first night I had robitussin. I remember when another child irrevocably changed the course of my life, made too much memory for my water to hold, even then. I remember the floor was damp. It was a grimy bathroom. I remember. My water knows it. My body knows it. That’s why I am a cloud in a shirt. That’s why I float away. Because I am trying to return. And I want the wind to carry me.


Kwame Sound Daniels is a traditional and fiber artist based out of Maryland. Xe are an Anaphora Arts Residency Fellow and an MFA candidate for Vermont College of Fine Arts. Xir first collection of poetry, Light Spun, was published in 2022 with Perennial Press. Xir second book, the pause and the breath, was on Lambda Literary’s Most Anticipated for January and came out in 2023 with Atmosphere Press. Kwame learns plant medicine, paints, and makes what can tentatively be called potions in xir spare time.