Ancestors

Farther back than my grandmother

(something strapped to me that I feel

but cannot see) I turn into a dead end

 

so narrow, I must reverse with due care

(no hard shoulder, grass verge, safety net).

Grandmother’s floor-length dress floats her

 

from pillar to post, while granddad

(out of sight and looked for all week)

strolls up the path at the front of the house,

 

Saturdays, in his Stetson and first-three-buttons

undone khaki shirt (his bare chest an inverted

cone, full of red rum). Light on his sandaled feet,

 

he glides soundlessly towards me always

(in my studio-lit, fitful and light sleep)

never close enough to reach out and touch

 

for me to become one of his famous captives

(whispered about last thing at night)

who he grabs and demands an open hand

 

only to plant a surprised shilling into it

(something hot in my palm till now)

and chase that child away with a shoo.

 

House and land for a mother and father.

(‘Child, hush, they send for you soon.”)

Their flesh and blood gone overseas,

 

their letters for a hug and hair-ruffle

(the arrow-shower of their handwriting)

that left me panting in shade under the house.

 

No trace of the great ones to speak of

said to roam the grounds here once,

like the lightning bugs we chased to catch

 

with our bare hands, bugs whose flashes

mark the last place of flight paths just gone

(that left us poised on the spot, empty-handed, lost).

 

The untidy family graves in a coconut grove

(we steered clear of at night and if out alone)

graves I hopped and skipped from one to the next

 

in company. Not much talk about them

that I recall, nothing grand about that picture

unless I make up a scepter, crowns and robes.

 

Except for one photo framed on the mantelpiece

of a couple, one black, one white, arms linked,

that collects light made of drifting dust particles.

 

My mother returns alone to claim me

(I promise to come back soon, and soon becomes old fast.)

Much later my father on his deathbed begs to meet.

 

Land shrinks some by making room for more things.

House waits just where I left it, but somehow

I drive past and must throw gears into reverse.

 

 

Fred D’Aguiar, novelist, poet, essayist and playwright, grew up in Guyana and England. His most recent book,of poetry is The Rose of Toulouse (Carcanet, 2013) and his forthcoming novel is , Children of Paradise (HarperCollins 2014). His novel The Longest Memory won the Whitbread Prize for Best First Novel, and his collection of poems, Bill of Rights, was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. Other collections, Mama Dot and Airy Hall, won the Malcolm X Poetry Prize and the Guyana Prize for Poetry, respectively. He has held the Judith E. Wilson Fellowship at Cambridge University and currently teaches at Virginia Tech.

Issue #29 November 2013
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