in january of 2021 i was holed up in my bedroom in our flat for about a week w/ boxes of genealogy materials (courtesy of my mom), old books (digital and paper) on nineteenth-century mining and geology, old plat maps, and books on the blackhawk war and on woodland effigy mounds, concocting a long narrative poem in segments. the effort’s purpose was to forge in the imagination a commingling of my own family lives, my ancestral family’s history, our inhabiting of particular locales (esp’ly milwaukee, janesville (wi), vinegar hill (il), cornwall, and the black forest), and the geological forces that bequeathed the rock, hydrology, and plant life that we’ve all shared. all thru the master trope of mining, since my mom’s earliest family in the area came here as lead miners. it’s set primarily in a middle cornish meter of randomly alternating 7- and 4-syllable lines.
it was a task a long time in the making.
anyhow, it’s called leads and diggings: a conglomerated family history, and the new adversus press was kind enough to publish five sections of the longer work. you can read them here if you have an interest, and the full work will be featured in my new collection, be radiant: a sonata pome, coming out in jan 2024 (more on that soon…). (there will be images from those old books in the full version)
This is one of the more recent pieces collected in my first book of poems, Sunk in Your Shipwreck. The dominant trope of the collection is the archetypal movement of “pilgrimage,” and this poem falls directly in that ambit.
In 2006, my older brother and I went on a fairly random two-week trek around Ireland and Great Britain, focusing on southwestern Ireland, London, and Cornwall. We have ancestors from Cornwall (around Camborne), and we spent a good bit of our UK time in the western-most part of Cornwall, Penwith.
The poem’s text follows the audio file of my reading, and I hope you enjoy (and visit Penwith someday!).
We railed it from Holyhead to Birmingham,
sleeping splayed across three seats like vagrants,
a Welsh child crawling down luggage racks
to case us out, hills rolling by outside.
Eyelids like metal traps resisting peregrinations
but the world springs back to form and clarity
over trestles in mine-ruin Redruth,
downtown Camborne—and little did we suspect
ancestral hamlet Gwillanwarthas a stone’s throw away.
Our uphill tramp along Penzance soaked cement
to the wrong hostel almost too much to take.
Back down petunia-lined lanes of thatched roofs—
who knew they still took the time?
Bags thrown on bunks that make you sad
how wet they are—we’re told that’s just Cornwall, mate—
and our clothes, our shoes did not dry for four days’ time,
despite the hostel dryer’s heroic and repeated attempts.
The rock, the seabirds too many to number and shades of difference,
another car cramped and rented, sitting in inverted seats,
but the same stick: we had that.
And you drove up the curb off Alverton Street
to the horror of several Cornish folk passing by
to their morning papers and pasties.
We kept the sea to our left on our circumambulation
always moving, the next fountain, the next cairn
and dolmen and churchyard, the next pond with
white streaks of swan and springs swallowed up
by time, padding up the A-30 to Bodmin Moor,
making wrong turns down claustrophobic lanes
toLamorna Cove with housewives’ sidelong glances
as they potted plants with strangers driving slowly past
and tossing off the world, the forest strange in these parts and sopping.
Why did we careen down backways, narrow and hard as rock
to find standing stone rings in farmers’ fields,
searching miry paths hung with moss for baptistries
left standing since the Reformation? Why the restless
surge to moor and field and shore in damp and rain,
in hard grey midmornings and no food ’til teatime?
The cracked and bristling grass that welcomed our feet,
the draughts from Iron Age wells and flowering club moss?
How can we know? The last bleak
stretch of path down unknown woods, opening out into clearings
lined with mud and lichen, into centuries, then turning ’round,
was more than enough—circling Penwith into the dawn