Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Tuesday Poem

One of my own poems this week.
Over ten years ago, I decided to make a year long project of researching and writing up my family history. I didn't know then how much I would find, and that I would still be researching ten years later. (The writing up part is yet to come).

It was inevitable that something of that research would filter into my poems from time to time. Today's poem is purely fictitious, but it does draw on what I now know of my Scottish families, and of others like them, for background.

Many Scottish families followed a very specific naming pattern. The most common variant is that the eldest son is named for his father's father, second son for his mother's father, third son for his father, and subsequent sons for other relatives such as uncles, or occasionally for an important figure such as the parish minister. With daughter's, the eldest was named for the mother's mother, second for the father's mother, and so on.

With high infant mortality, if a child died young, the name was very often used again, to ensure it was carried on. Unlike today, a name was less a sign of individuality than of belonging - and one might well find many cousins, all bearing exactly the same name.

Hard Water, Soft Rock

Five years since the minister called the banns
on three successive Sundays. There being
no objections, they were duly married.
Today in the same church, she names her daughter Agnes.

Twice before she has done this.
The first time it was famine, the second it was fever
that carried the child off. Scarce time
to have the bairn baptised, before
they're paying for the mortcloth.
She names her daughter Agnes,
because it was her mother's name.

Spring struggles with winter. Ice still sheets
the edges of the Bannock Burn. snow lies
unmelted in the kirkyard, in the shadows
cast by two small mounds. She prays
there will not be another.

She names her daughter Agnes,
because it was her mother's name,
and her mother's mother's mother before her
and because all families continue forever,
looking backwards.


"Hard Water, Soft Rock" was published in The Chook Book, my poetry group's first collection which came out in 2004 and is now out of print (though I may be able to find one or two if anyone desperately wants one).

Our second collection, Flap: the Chook Book 2 is now available at Fishpond, and at the Madras Cafe Bookshop.


Tim Jones said...

Apart from everything else in this fine poem, I really like that word 'mortcloth' - I've never seen it before, but I fear I don't need to ask its meaning.

I wonder how many people in the toils of repaying a mortgage pause to remember that it means "death pledge"?

Catherine said...

In Scotland it was not the custom to bury people in coffins, although I gather than they were used - or perhaps rough wooden planks. The mortcloth was hired, usually from the parish, to cover the body until the time of burial.
I believe the best mortcloths were made of dark blue velvet. Records of burials are fairly sparse, and the best clues to the genealogist of death dates, prior to civil registration, is to look for the parish accounts for hiring out the mortcloth.

Claire Beynon said...

There's a hush about this poem, Catherine - I'm not sure how you've done this, but somehow we find ourselves standing in the past, present and future at one and the same time. So poignant, this naming, then re-naming - and again. . . regardless of the tradition aspect herein, there's a certain tenacity in the repetition - defiance, almost.
Thank you. I look forward to reading more of these family/ancestral poems.

Unknown said...

This is a beautiful poem Catherine and I learnt much from it - the mort cloth, the re-naming.. I love how Claire has written about it .

Joseph Harker said...

Definitely very educational, but presented in a moving way, and you bring in so many different elements: the good times, the bad times, the impersonal presence of Scotland itself. The subtle use of dialect helped too; this is masterful. :)

Helen Lowe said...

A fine poem, Catherine--very strong and moving.

Jennifer Compton said...

terrific stuff - beautifully executed