Ancestor Echoes

ancestor echoes

I woke up well pre-dawn today. So poetry practice in early darkness is back on track. And I had an inkling that I wanted to write about ancestral objects. I seem to collect objects that have family story attached. My walls are adorned with paintings by my father-in-law, brother-in-law, great uncle and niece. I have family tree photo montages. Yet there are plenty of blanks in the family history, as well as some secrets and probably a few lies, too.

After I wrote today’s poem – which is a curtal sonnet, a form invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins – I realised that today is my name day. In German tradition, you celebrate your patron saint’s feast day. Today is St. Barbara’s Day. I am Barbara the Third on the paternal line. So Happy Name Day Oma and Grandma!

The featured photo is of a portable writing desk that a cousin passed to me. When a friend refurbished it we realised that it had been an 1879 Christmas present from my maternal Great-great Grandmother Mary Ella to my Great-Grandmother Mary Ella (there are a lot of mother/daughter name repetitions on both sides of the family!). There was writing on the underside of the writing case in faded ink that said as much and recorded the date of the gifting. Helga reckoned it was handmade. There were a few signs of a shortcuts taken in its manufacture, probably as the deadline of the Great Day loomed.

In the days before laptop computers, these personal writing cases or lap desks were important personal objects. It felt fitting that a writer in the family became custodian.


Ancestor Echoes

We like to keep tokens to memory
Be it book or china jug or medal.
These solid things are both secrets and clues.
Ancestral objects of passed family,
Proof of links we cannot deny or annul.
They cannot speak. May not have wanted to.
The object remains of stories they leave –
A wedding ring, Will’s ruining fiddle -
What stories we tell are family’s glue.
Do they speak of love? Are we done with grief?
How true?
 
Copyright © 2018 Bee Smith
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Gratitude for Fortitude

The illuminated screen said 5:55am. In the land of my birth, it was only just Thanksgiving. Even though I won’t have turkey (although I imagined a ghostly whiff of some roasting while I made my first tea of the day), candied yam or pumpkin pie, I still preserve the ritual of giving thanks on Thanksgiving. And my mind turns to my own migrant ancestors. Some went off in leaky ships on a long transatlantic journey back in the early decades of the seventeenth century.. More recently my namesake German grandma passed through Ellis Island with her parents and toddler sister. Americans are migrants and nomads. Even Native Americans had to travel across the frozen Bering Strait to migrate into the North American continent. We all had to hoof it to get there one way or the other.- on foot, by dog sled, corracle, long ship, clipper, or airplane.

My poetry practice for this dawn’s early light takes its cue from the gratitude theme. Ideally, that should be more than one day a year because those who practice gratitude tend to be happier and kinder. Thanksgiving is probably the major family gathering feast day on the calendar. So it seemed right to conjure family, no matter how remote, on this day.

Fortitude

I thank you ancestors for
your spine and pluck,
for your knowing of when to leave,
the courage to try your luck.
 
I thank you ancestors for
your endurance of marathon runners,
for keeping some faith when
hope hoisted up its anchor.
 
I thank you ancestors for
my very blood and bone.
I thank you thousands who loved,
and those that felt all alone.
 
I thank you ancestors for
bringing me here, for the going
through and getting passed over,
for my own bodily strands helixing.
 
I thank you ancestors for
feeling your fears, for your shadows,
for this task of mining the golden vein
in even the most chaotic fandangos.
 
I thank you ancestors for
now you may rest in peace,
bestowing on descendants the tasks
like rescuing Jason’s golden fleece.
 
I thank you ancestors for
your quests and heroic journeys,
for the tiny triumphs and huge betrayals,
for your centuries’ continual re-sorcery.
 
I thank you ancestors for
the heart that can allow us to forgive,
the memory that will never forget,
and – most of all – you own will to live.
 
Copyright © Bee Smith 2018


Land of My Heart

I live in an area of outstanding natural beauty and geological significance. Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark was a region stripped of much of its population through the vagaries of a century and more of famine, civil unrest and general economic penury. The Irish language clung on in the uplands, but eventually it, too, was virtually extinguished. But upland country breeds resilience. Those who stayed held firm. They were the keepers in more ways than one.

The Back Road

Each day they rise, living they may think

        small, isolated lives, dwarfed by this horizon.

        Each day they rise before this wide sky,

         watching the light rearrange the picture ,

         mountain recedes and lough is obscured.

         Each day they rise to read the sky, every shadow,

  each cloud a new line in a saga.

        

         You see it reflected in guileless eyes,

         in women who have ancient faces,

         features utterly unmodern, undisguised.

         Fingers, flesh, cheek bones hewn by

         thousands of years of family tracing their living

         in relentless, miraculous weather.

         The memory is in the peat they walk and burn,

         in the hedgerows, rowan trees, heather and fern.

 

         Each day they rise, living they may think

         small, isolated lives, dwarfed by this

         huge picture drawn across a canvas sky.

         They can read it still, alive to the shifting signs.

         The Burren stone is bred in their own bones.

         When they pass into the mist we will be left

         with wind, weather, a different cast of light.

         The skyline will be read in a language foundering

  in clefts of limestone, silent as the  fog bound bog.

© Bee Smith 2016

The Celtic Tiger attracted new people like us – ‘blow-ins’. Not indigenous to the land. Some might be the children or grandchildren returning to a homeplace from years of emigration in Britain, Canada or the USA. But Germans and Dutch fell in love with the pristine environment, the lakes that promised limitless fishing. Eastern Europeans arrived to build the houses the rode the Tiger’s back. This border country offered cheap land and rents, so artists from every kind of discipline found their way here.

Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark straddles Fermanagh, in Northern Ireland, and Cavan in the Republic. In the ancient kingdom of Ireland system, both counties were part of Ulster.  And it was from somewhere in Ulster that the paternal Smiths are alleged to have travelled to a new life in New York City sometime in the 19th century.

What my current dwelling place has in common with my migrant ancestors is that it has always hosted incomers. This place has always been a draw for those with itchy feet. In Irish myth from the Leitrim side of my village you can see Slieve Anieran (Iron Mountain) rise. It was here that the mythical race, the Tuatha dé Danaan, first landed in Erin.  After their defeat by the new incomers, the Milesians, they retreated to this homeplace before they went into the sídh, that placeless space beyond our finite three-dimensional world.

I am descended from migrants, just like the Tuatha dé Danaan and the Milesians were migrants to Ireland. The 17th century colonial Quakers and Dutch sailed in leaky wooden ships instead of boats the Tuatha burnt when they found themselves in Erin. My German ancestors sailed into Ellis Island from Franconia to set up a shoe shop in Queens. My Irish ancestors watched skyscrapers rise above the dusty grid of city streets and the Statue of Liberty would welcome Joe Smith’s future bride as she arrived as a little girl in the New World.

In a reverse journey, two centuries on, their descendent would find a sense of home in the land where the River Shannon finds its source. I live in the first village on the River Shannon. As you drive towards the village the promontory of Slievenakilla, known as The Playbank, hulks on the horizon. It is very like the sphinx and indeed, I do sometimes feel as if I live in nature’s own version of the Valley of the Kings.

Playbank poem

I feel full of gratitude that through a combination of serendipity, synchronicity, the poems of W.B. Yeats and Brighid of Ireland we were led to this place. It wasn’t our plan. But sometimes Spirit, and possibly, too, the Ancestors and the Land itself have other plans for us.

All of us who have ‘itchy feet’ – we migrants who get up and go, those walking the world from way back,  even to the eon-aged mists cloaking the ships of the Tuatha dé Danaan – the Land teaches us the same lesson. One day it will take our ashes or bones and then the Land will allow us to enter its narrative and we will become one body.

© Bee Smith 2017