I love poetry because it can open spaces inside me that are so hidden I might not know they are there. A word, a line, a rhyme can cast a light on something that could make me think, why have I been so oblivious to that? Or it might trigger a memory or thought, perhaps unrelated to the poem, that I might see in a whole new light.
Music can do this for me, too. Or a painting. But poetry gets right to the heart of the matter.
I recently listened to this poem, “Walking with My Delaware Grandfather,” on the Poetry Unbound podcast. It’s written by Denise Low, an American poet with mixed European and Indigenous heritage.
Read or listen to this poem
Read the poem here. Or listen to the reading of it by Pádraig Ó Tuama, the Poetry Unbound podcast host. Ó Tuama’s lilting Irish reading and his rapid-fire reflections on the poem are worth hanging around for the entire 11-minute segment.
The poem is about Low’s ties to her family past, her heritage. It focuses on her grandfather, “a Native man with coal-black-hair,” who was introduced to her when she was a baby, “swaddled and blinking in the kitchen light.”
“So we are introduced. We never part,” Low writes.
There is no suggestion about how long the grandfather spends with the poet in her life, but his presence is felt every day, it would seem, never far away. He may be a memory, but he is so close he can touch her. He’s a quiet presence, “mostly wordless,” walking the streets with her, residing in the house of her birth.
The bone house
He lodges in her house still, “the bone-house where my heart beats.”
Low’s knowledge about this man comes through the stories of her own mother, who tells how his mother guided him, her values, and her strength. And this line of strong women materializes in the grandfather’s persona, which in turn informs her own values, her way of seeing the world.
I like how the poem bridges four generations of family: Low’s great grandmother, Low’s grandfather, Low’s mother and Low herself. The recollections of the older women, passed on to Low herself, bring the grandfather to life. He may not be alive, but he is in every other manner: through her senses, his curiosity in her and the protection she feels from his proximity. He’s not a memory but a presence who follows Low through her own life.
Re-membering, an act of defiance
Race and ancestry play a role. Pádraig Ó Tuama suggests that the act of remembering her grandfather is a way of bringing him back to life. Not in the sense of recalling him but of “bringing him back together.” It’s a form of defiance, he suggests, giving the Native grandfather a place in the present world. Healing of sorts for one who faced a society that wanted to erase the First People.
There is more than the view here that our relatives and ancestors are blurry images from the past. Some people have little presence other than poorly remembered stories and faded photographs.
The poem suggests that we’re beneficiaries of the wisdom and humanity of our ancestors, but also that we honour them and dignify them with healing and love. We offer warmth and home in the bone-house where our living hearts beat.
The poem ends with this stunning line:
Air draws through these lungs made from his.
His blood still pulses through this hand.
My own father follows me, too
My father was a respiratory doctor and professor of medicine, and I’ve been thinking of him over the past two years as COVID has ravaged the world. I don’t remember him being an energetic scientist, but he might have found himself as a bit of an expert had he been around to live through COVID.
My father has been gone 36 years, almost to this day. I’ve outlived him by nearly three years. And it’s strange to find him so close to me, now. As if he’s nipping at my heels, asking questions about this COVID thing, what’s the nature of this disease.
I’ve been unable to help much, but I told him my fears and worries, how the hospitals have coped, and how the world has coped. How the world has changed. He shakes his head in disbelief.
Happy to have him in my bone house
Like Denise Low’s grandfather, I feel my father beside or behind me much of the time. I hear his voice in my voice and in the voices of my brother and sister. And I imagine those voices come from relatives much further back than my father or mother.
He helps me, though, as he always does when I find myself talking to him. I tell him about Pender Island, baking bread, and all this writing. He helps me with his wisdom and fearlessness, curiosity, and humour.
He doesn’t talk much, really. And if I’m honest, I have to say I do most of the talking. I want him near, so I speak. I don’t want him to leave.
He seems to want to hang around, though. And I’m happy to have him in my bone-house.
Cinnamon-Raisin bread, an enduring Happy Monk favourite. And here’s proof of Mildrith’s (the wood-fired oven) recent health check, as she just baked 41 loaves of this (and another 40 of Seed Feast) with lots of heat left to spare. Long live Mildrith and long live Cinnamon-Raisin bread!
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