April 7 :: Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry”

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

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.
I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,
1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),
and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece
(she sends me letters written in large block print, and
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).
I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took
off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in
the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no
place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”
Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr / like a salmon quitting
the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birthstream / I
hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my packet and a
monkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.
I walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard / I smelled the old
land and the woods / I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men /
I flirted with the women / I had a ball till the caps ran out
and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother
and split / my guts were screaming for junk / but I was almost
contented / I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.)
This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space between.
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