Those who read my blog regularly will know that this week's topic at readwritepoem - to explore our ancestry - isn't much of a stretch for me. It seems that genealogy is a popular obsession. Recently, I've been reading Fleur Adcock's collection, Looking Back. the first half of the book is a series of poems about her ancestors. She writes of the hardships they experienced in Victorian times, in the industrial town of Manchester, and goes back earlier to discover some notable traitors and villains.
I enjoyed the poems very much. Even though these belong to someone else's story, there is enough that is universal in their lives to resonate with me. She writes not only of their lives but of her search for their lives:
What are you loving me with? I'm dead
What glad of tenderness throbs in you,
yearning back through the silt of ages
to a face and a voice you never knew?
(Ancestor to Devotee)
They don't know that we know,
or that we're standing here, in possession
of some really quite intimate information
about the causes of their deaths
(Where they Lived)
Some things, it seems, never change: she writes of escaping into research at the time of the Gulf War, and finding a will in which two of her long dead relations were left a sum of money annually, "so long as they follow the warres"
I've had to return my borrowed library copy. It seems it is now out of print, but you can buy it used at Amazon (rather pricey)
Alternatively the poems are included in the substantial collection Fleur Adcock: Poems 1960-2000
New Zealand readers might like to try Fishpond instead for a better price.
And now, one of my own poems - this is a fairly early one, included in our poetry group's first collection. It was written after a summer of fairly intensive genealogical research. It doesn't refer so much to a particular ancestor but to the social history of the times and place (Scotland) that they came from, and their imagined stories.
Songs and Dances of Death
What they did not know was that the curious fertility of the soil came about because they stood on an ancient battlefield. Sometimes they would turn up old bones and once, a skull. They took it to the priest for burial and returned to their ploughing. At night they told the old stories. If you had asked “Can’t you hear the dead crying out?” they would say “It’s only the wind in the wheat”
All summer I read of these things.
In my garden the weeds grew lank.
It rained often. On the path
I could barely make out a small bundle of feathers
In the museum there is a dark blue velvet
cloth. It has covered many at their burials.
As well seek them in the night sky as here
their trace as faint
It is because of their deaths that we have come
this poem is not a sarcophagus
this poem is not a mausoleum
this poem is a brown cardboard box
sufficient to bury one dead blackbird
found on my garden path