Poem for my Ancestors: Zearing Iowa

I’d be mistaken to think
that re-aligning my spine
were as easy as standing up straight.

As if depression were cured by medication, and not dancing.
As if the future existed separately from the past.
As if coins had only one side.

I examined the soles of my shoes,
pair after pair, year after year,
and found the big toes worn out,
the heels barely imprinted.
As if I’d been life-long
lunging forward, top-heavy, ready,
on the verge of flight.

Reading the soles like tea leaves
I saw that the back of my body,
the heels, the back ribs,
the wedge of the occiput,
the sternum’s backdoor,
that these doors could be opened
not only through yoga,
the arc of spine curving backward,
but also through time travel,
following the DNA highway upstream, retrograde
ancestral style.

Back back back, back to Iowa.
Back to the homestead, the corn field, the cow barn.
Back to the crashed model-T, to the orphanage, the steamship,
Back back back to the baker’s block.

See, maybe my heels don’t fully reach the ground
cause Great Great Grandpa Frank J. was a white slave,
an illegal indentured servant,
four years after the 13th amendment passed,
four years after emancipation rang out,
yet Frank J.’s boss missed the emancipation memo, it seems.

A plank cot & some bread “adequate to his rank and station in life,”
he was paid. His whiteness, the unearned favor,
the locomotive that made this “rank & station” a passing stop.

I wonder how it was for him
to see his black brothers
bear a different fate?

Maybe he felt the cringe of unwelcomeness,
that quickly germinating seed that blooms
the flower of unworthiness.
Perhaps unworthiness and pride paired his coin
that no-so-long-ago year he left Exeter for Illinois,
crossed an ocean by steamship just to watch
his newfound Great City burn in a Great, Great Fire.
Chicago, 1871.

Frank J. did his time on soda, wheat, and rye
until big boss Hodge freed the baker slave,
and Frank pressed onward, to Iowa,
to rolling hills and pasture, to his own promised land.

But whose promise had been broken to make way for Frank?
Whose home had been seen a bitter end
for Frank J.’s fresh start?

Were the tribes still there?
And did he thank them?
Did he kneel and bow and weep
for those who came before him?

Or was he—as we might imagine more likely—
22 years old and scared and strong and lonely?
Armored and toughened, hopeful and proud?

Did he consider that the land
into which his urgent shovel plunged
lived freely and for its own sake?

Did he listen in long enough to notice
that the oaks had a sixty-year conversation going
with the sycamores, and that the beetles came often for tea?

Or was this earthly kin
merely a resource to him,
an inert clod of dirt and disorder
on which he staked his hungry,
innocent (ignorant) claim?

Death begets life.
The snake eats its tail in perpetuity.
This cannot be avoided.

But if you pay the Great Mother
any attention at all,
she’ll teach you first about manners.
You’ve got to learn to say “thank you”
and “I see you” and
“we are here together”
and “so it is”
as she devours you.

If you must destroy or be destroyed,
if you find your soft body in a tight corner
where killing or being killed is the only way,
then you’ve got to learn to open your heart
to what kills you, and to what you destroy,
so you can die a little too as the knife goes in,
and remember what it is to loose your own life,
to spring forth mercy from your veins.

Maybe my heels don’t quite touch down
because for generations
my ancestors have been leaning forward,
toiling for their own lives,
and toiling for me,
too desperate for survival
to allow something as soft
and slow as tenderness.
Too dry and drought-hardy
to welcome watery pain,
the ache that runs like rivers,
cracks stones in pieces,
showing how only broken things
are made whole.

Maybe the broken words and betrayals
Rot and compost with the blessings.
Maybe that plow has tilled my soil.

Dear Ancestors,
if I may have your kind attention now?
I lay a wreath of marigolds at your feet.
(Or a sack of flour and two ham hocks if that rings
as a more apt offering for your farmyard hands.)

I am grateful to you and I bow here,
in Zearing Iowa, my maternal ancestral lands.

Dear Ancestors, I tell you this,
And I ask you to take it in slowly,
to let it wrap you in kind, cool quilts,
let it comfort you as an ice box fat with feast,
content you like bread a-plenty with chitterlings to spare.

May it warm you
like that long-forgotten London tea,
if the cup still sings of
what is good and right and home.

Dear Ancestors, we made it.
We are safe now.
Here, now in this moment, I am safe,
safe enough to write this poem.

My home is dry and sturdy and beautiful.
I am loved by a man who has kindness in his hands.

Dear grandmother at the orphanage,
you who were once a ward of the State,
I belong fully to myself and to a community of others now.
We are orphaned no more.

Dear Doyle, dear Frank, dearest Frank J.
You who worked the fields with sweat and slog,
You may have never learned the sentience of the land,
but I can learn it for us now.

Because of you, I think less now of survival,
and more of communion, creation, joy.

I stand at your graves and I thank you.
Thank you for all you did for yourselves.
The fruits of your kindness,
and the flowers of your fight
have left their scent in me.

I forgive you for all that you didn’t,
and especially for all that you couldn’t.

My body still lives and I tend it well.
When I move, I move for all of us.
I cry tears you weren’t safe to cry,
and enjoy pleasures you were forbidden to know.
I do this for all of us.

Should you need me,
my heart and hands are at your service.
And should I need you,
I shall not hesitate to call.