Somebody on Facebook asked for suggestions for poems about place and ancestry and immediately this one popped into my head. I like many of Etheridge Knight’s poems, especially “Hard Rock Returns from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” and “A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison”. What each of these poems shares in common is a strong sense of place. You may or may not know Knight’s biography, but he spent a considerable amount of time in prison and was an addict, and you can see how each of the three poems I have mentioned here deal with those things.
In terms of place, and what interests me about “The Idea of Ancestry” is the antithesis of the claustrophobic (the prison cell) and the expansiveness of a) the family tree and b) family history. I think a lot about family in my work recently, particularly with regards to location and home. I am never at home. Not to say that I am never in the house where I pay rent, rather, I am never at Home. From 1993-2003, I lived in twelve or fourteen or twenty different places. Since then, it’s been four cities in two countries and three months in Spain going from bungalow to hotel to hostel to apartment. The house I live in now feels like home and so does, weirdly, New Jersey.
This is contrary to Knight’s experience in his poem. He is in one place while the family moves around on the outside. They do not move without him though. And he is not stationary without them. The photographs stare at him from across the cell, which I gather is not a long space, metrically speaking, but is in other ways. That space is the last image hanging out there, the final proposition of the poem, the lacking and the fulfillment of the rumination.
The Idea of Ancestry