16 March 2008

Who Am I?

Last night, the Criterion Theatre hosted a Celtic Music night. I am on the board of this theatre and I felt a certain responsibility to attend, let's say (because, while I'm a huge consumer of Irishness in general, I sometimes feel that the whole Celtic subculture can be a shade inauthentic. Sometimes even exploitative.) Lydia agreed to accompany me because one of her favorite things to do, inexplicably, is clean the theatre after an event. :: shrug :: As a board member, I'd be remiss not taking advantage of that. Plus, I have so few opportunities to bask in Lydia's personality.

Much to my amazement, this evening rocked me to the core, serving up revelation after revelation about myself, my genealogy, my daughter, and my theatre. The artists were Jennifer Armstrong (http://www.jenniferarmstrong.com/) and Ladies of the Lake (http://www.ladiesofthelakemusic.com/). At no point did either act strike an inauthentic nerve--they were interpreting the songs and instruments of the past, not shaming them. And they were all incredibly skilled multi-musicians. I learned:

1) Bagpipes and tin whistles are guaranteed to make me cry. (More about that soon.)

2) Lydia absolutely loves this kind of music, and identifies strongly with female musicians.

3) After the Jacobite Wars of the 18th century, the English banned bagpipes, the Gaelic language, and other cultural mainstays. Because bagpipe melodies had always been conveyed from master to learner as sung phrases--with words standing in for notations--the instrument endured through this ban and was readopted immediately after the ban was lifted, with the songs still handed down intact. Scots women singing as they went about their chores helped sustain the melodies.

4) The Criterion Theatre is inspirational, period. I've been dedicated to it for months now, but as a venue, it's a powerful and historical house.

When I got home from the show, I was a little crazed to capture all the emotions I was hauling around. Scrapbooking? poetry? blog? Couldn't choose. Finally, between 2 a.m. and ten minutes ago, two poems emerged to bring peace to my insides. Indulge me, if you will. It feels so good to have named these feelings that are as familiar as bread.

At the Celtic Music Concert

Bagpipes and tin whistle
make me cry
for people I will not meet
but whose breath I know,
whose blood is mine.
At some point,
every single family line
had this moment:
the ship, the coast,
the home behind,
the uneasy sea,
the unknown ahead.
My French soul,
my Irish heart:
jigs and reels
tug me home
to heal.

Who Am I?

I grew up in the 1970s
when heritage was optional,
when families whose ancestors had only just arrived
chose “Colonial” as a kitchen décor—
not seeing the irony in copper-clad pots
and faux hearths.

Marooned on the desert island
of a tiny Queens apartment,
my mother, brother and me:
sole survivors of a shipwrecked marriage--

another union of Irish and French,
litany of arguments and poverty and drunkenness
relived    not conquered    
we never learn if we don’t grasp the past
They didn’t grasp the past.
Thus I was robbed of my tongues:
mumbled Québécois French
of rosaries and gossip,
crooned Gaelic
of mothers at the sideboard and fathers stumbling home.
Rootless in a neighborhood of new-arrived ethnics.
Strangely blinded to me, myself, I.

And so my search began.
Denied faces, stories and names,
discouraged from connecting,
I quested for them far and wide.
Thirty years later, I am here to report:
I have found them

in scrawled handwritten records, city directories,
and photo albums of distant cousins.
Their souls reach to me.

I feel their troubles, their joys, their births, their journeys
keenly, deeper than my heart, where mothering takes hold.

Genealogy is their embrace,
a compulsion for reunion.
(I will go anywhere to be in a room full of cousins.)
Grass and farm and factory and church.
It is standing where they were baptized
(I have)
and kneeling where they were buried (yes)
my knees dampened by eternal sod.
I am not in Queens anymore.


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