Saturday, 28 November 2009

Ancestral, on the eve of my sixty-first

...And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

- Coleridge, Kubla Khan

I am reading a PhD for examining. Interesting, applying cognitive poetics to post-colonial poetry in the hope of arriving at a deeper understanding of both the poetry and the condition of post-colonialism.

I cannot say anything about the dissertation itself but was stopped for a moment when it talked of indigenous people being forced off ancestral lands. I began to think about ancestral lands. And, inevitably, about colonialism too.

First, I wondered about my own ancestral lands. As a Central European Jew I cannot think of any place that would be mine or ancestral, unless perhaps Israel, though heaven knows when my ancestors last set foot there. I don't know the names or locations of my ancestors more than three generations back. All I know is that they didn't stand still. They drifted about Moravia, Bohemia, Transylvania and Hungary, and heaven knows where else. Now they were here, now there. Ghettos, shtetls and pogroms, I suppose. And so it went on for centuries.

My sense of ancestral lands is what Eliot describes in Gerontion:

And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.

Very Chagallesque, don't you think, those goats in the field overhead? Lovers float in the sky, there are the soulful eyes of cows and, look, there through the window, rises the Eiffel Tower with a cockerel crowing behind it. I am squatting on the window sill, squatting I suppose, on other people's ancestral lands, with only my lower case j to keep me company, regarding patched and peeled London, thinking of rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron and merds, particularly merds, while the weather continues charming.

How many of us actually have ancestral lands? How far back do you go? Four generations? Five generations? Few people in Europe have had that stability, not since industrialisation. And before that there were other movements, trade movements, war movements, plague movements, pilgrimage movements, a great whirlwind of peoples blowing through fields and streets.

That seems to me one of the ur-patterns of life. Movement and dream and parting and arrival. Millennia of it. Even the Arabs, whose ancestral lands are part of the PhD thesis, are, the thesis tells us, ancient wanderers.

Now I don't know which is better. Long, stable, unchanged communities (shall we say five generations? six? seven?) or stray and windblown. The catalysed or the catalysers? The soil or the pollen?

Being of the pollen I can't always see the fuss about the soil. The making of the English landscape has been well documented. Look, let's build a hill! Let's divert a river! Elsewhere, another time, people were shifting sand and stone, putting up pyramids or cathedrals. Is that Ozymandias in the distance? On this spot I planted a cherry tree. On this spot perished my paternal grandfather. Or was it another spot?

I can't always see the fuss but I understand human distress and how being uprooted after years of stability causes distress. Broken movements, broken dreams.


Colonialism didn't suddenly just happen. It wasn't specifically a European capitalist venture. The human race has moved and made camp, displaced, absorbed, then moved on again. Some camps just last longer.

There was no Eden, no Paradise.

Except in our minds, because we make such places there, and understand the importance of Eden to those who have dwelt there, in some real space, real location, their minds lodged between the material and the imagined. There they lived with each other, protecting each other, talking to each other, singing to each other, every so often swearing at each other and even killing each other, like all tribes do, dividing and uniting, looking on this or that tree thinking: that's part of me, that is. That is part of us, the descendants of the ancestors. And they said and sang this in the ancestral language. And some of them moved on and some of them stayed for a while, and the language modified and absorbed the languages of those they displaced or were displaced by.

Meteors and shooting stars and bits of rock: moss, stonecrop, iron and merds. All things peeled and patched. Meanwhile the mind proposes numbers and sentences and music.


It is dark outside, and cold. I know this small town quite well. I am very fond of it. The desk-light has an intimate glow. This is where I live and where my ancestors lived. Desks, and lights, the intimate glow. And the language of that brief intimacy. C with me, now upstairs, moving a chair about. Son T currently in Ireland, in Cork tonight. H and her husband R preparing to move to Norfolk three days from now. And outside, the Chinese family with the struggling take-away, and the old man with the chewed up face in the betting shop who has been standing in its doorway as long as I can remember.


Jee Leong Koh said...

"Desks, and lights, the intimate glow." That too is a kind of campfire, I suppose.

Poet in Residence said...

Enjoy your 61st and remember that your ancestral land like mine is all the World and all that is in it. There is no chosen people. And yet we are all chosen people.

If anyone feels deeply that he must have an ancestral land it must be, by definition, somewhere in Africa.

George S said...

You mean the Welsh are NOT the chosen people?

So who are those Johnny-come-lately Africans, and what are they doing in our ancestral land?

Anonymous said...

Dear Poet,
I understand what you mean by ancestral land. My father being from Instambul, my mother from Asia Minor, both Greeks, fugitives away from their native land by force. I know living in Greece full of the memories of their memories. They are not in life either of them. I also have been and studied in UEA, believing back then that I could make Norfolk my new country for a while but it didn't happen to be. Now back to Greece, I write about my experiences and memories from Norwich having within my heart only the dark, superb world of Laszlo Krasznahorkai in your excellence translation. Be well and remember, nothing in this world perishes without a memory or a trace by somebody. Surranachronist Eleni Seliniadou-Garvin

Background Artist said...

'Happy Birthday. Get rubbish soon, make 'em feel better, the competion.'

WotneyEndras (from FB, remember, we met in the train to..)

ha ha ha

me arty urgh!! no, no, please, not on my first, second birthday congratulations address to the S who is fifty fifty, straight up 'me' who is just like 'you' GS words.

Happy sixty-first S, have a great day: reverse the numerals and be sixteen again, if only for a minute - strap on the skates and get in the rink of Language, don't give up believing in the heart, head and system of prayer and thanks for a life the muse blessed more than most, who Homer calls and Appollo plays through. Bastard.

You've still got it, the aul verbal magic.

A mystery fan.

nucts - wordverificat.

Poet in Residence said...

"You mean the Welsh are NOT the chosen people?"

Not even the Merlinesque Giggs is one of the chosen people. Not even the noble Cadwallader.

It has been claimed by geologists that Wales could be the first place God made. But the same Cambrian rock, bordering on pre-Cambrian, i.e. mud) is also found in Canada. So it's all quite meaningless.

It's like your birthday party George. You invite your friends. Do you honestly give a **** how much pigment they have in their skin? No. Your guests are 'your chosen'. You will choose them because they have the rare ability of being able to think for themselves.

Poet in Residence said...

And you will also choose them for other reasons, but you will not choose them because you hope to gain some advantage by doing so. And that's how it should be.

My favourite footballer is Colin Hendry. He was Scotland the Brave personified. I met Colin's dad once. He was a real gentleman.

George S said...

Thank you BA and PiR and Jee Leong and Anonymous. Jee Leong is right - the desk and lamp constitute a camp. And Eleni, that is lovely and, of course, sad too. There is a good Polish word I took from Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation. It is tesknota - it means nostalgia, but it seems better than that, more diffuse and somehow less loaded with sentimentality.

Warm wishes to you all.

Background Artist said...

'It has been claimed by geologists that Wales could be the first place 'God' made..'(?)

What's the story - Gwil, behind this statement, please?

I suspect it's mired in a depth somewhere, out the way, only the few interested in Welsh myth would be au fait with?


consksh - worver

Background Artist said...

I just remembered. I coulda posted it on yer blog Gwil. I'm just wondering if it's welsh myth, and if, where. I am moving into that area now, after exhausting meself on Fodhla and Banbha's gobble dee gloop. I'm packing in the Irish myth, it's rubbish. I wanna be Welsh from now.

Poet in Residence said...

There's a book. Jan Morris - "Wales, the First Place God Made".
Croeso! and welcome to Wales, BA
Did I ever tell you about the Lost Atlantis of Cardigan Bay? The say can hear the bells ringing when the wind is in the right quarter. Draw your line from the end of the Llyn Peninsula to the tip of Pembroke - all that was also Wales once, but then it sunk beneath the sea. The wrath of the Almighty or what?

Poet in Residence said...

And of course there's the world's biggest Bronze Age copper mine on the Great Orme (Dragon) near Llandudno with its 8kms of so-far discovered tunnels going down 9 levels where enough malachite for 10,000,000 axes was produced 4,000 years ago...are you SURE you want to get mixed-up in all this Welshness BA. After all, 'Welsh' is only English for foreigner. The foreigner in his own land then?

Background Artist said...

Goidel, from which Gael, so some claim - comes, is also I think i read, some kind of Brythonic or Pict word, for 'foreigner', or 'raider': because the Irish got that name, I think round the collapse of Rome when Wales was on the receiving end of Irish incursion, the clans that became Welsh but started out as Irish raiders in the 4 and 5 C, in the N%SW penninsulaS.

I saw a programme on tv about those mines, with a fat English bloke who seems to hate the British, a radical academic by the looks of him, who is Celtic mad and trying to position his identity full square within that brand of cultural reconstruction that is truly shared by all of us, no matter where we come from, I think. iBriScoWish, a term encompassing all three kingdoms of the union.

Background Artist said...

oops, fat British bloke who was a bit leery on the English, even though he was posh English himself, obviously with celt people making his container through which the lens of his consciousness experiences its brief flash as 'here'

George S said...

Which fat English bloke? Jonathan Meade?

Poet in Residence said...

"Which fat English bloke?"

Certainly not the athletic long-striding indomitable Nick Crane with his trademark umbrella sticking out of his rucksack who went down those very mines with a girl with silver finger nails.

I've been down those mines too, although the visitor is only allowed in the first two levels, and I can tell you it's a pretty tight squeeze - perhaps BA's "fat English bloke" is still down there. Although I didn't see him.

What I often like to remember is that a 4,000 year old cat, surrounded by a small circle of blackberry seeds, was found on a rock shelf down there. I like to imagine the cat's owners, perhaps children and their parents, carefully laying the animal to rest.
Who is Jonathan Meade?
By the way, in the Bronze Age the Great Orme (Dragon) used to be an island. It may soon become so again. Llandudno may become the new Venice.

Background Artist said...

Jonathan meades is a middle aged RADA trained rent-a-face all rounder in the cultural commentating biz. He is best known for waxing orgasmically on architecture, food, and current affairs, whilst wearing Alan Delon shades to get across how cool he really is and not just a bloke who talks 'posh'. (Bastard).

The mimic John Sessions, playing Keef Richards as a corner shop-keeper in that tv comedy show from a few years back, Stella Street - a brave luvvie doing his bit for contemporary English Culture all go go and wow, wow!

The other fella prancing with the umbrella, is unknown to me, and is thin. No, this chap looks a bit like the fat archeologist with with straggly hari, who is oppo number 2 or three to Tony Robinson on Time Team.

The one always on about the geo-fizz, with a SW English accent, that I read someone point out (was it you George?), actually sounds like Norfolk.

I spent five minutes trying to pull up the show, but can't find it. He looks a bit like the Time Team fattie, but more bouncey and rotund, retracing the Celts of Britain in the prog and loving to point out stuff that dilineates different than the usual one dimensional luvvie-spec fawned into our drawing rooms and parlours by the less radical television Historians happy with the staus quo poetic that delivers them that 'posh' accent 'I' feel inferior to when performing one's role as the voice of the bog-class cultural Commoner commentating on very very unimportant realities, such as what I watch on telly, here, in the throne room of ones plasterboard castle.

Hip hip.

George S said...

Yes, BA - it was a Norfolk taxi driver who told me that people in SW England spoke Norfolk only much slower.

He was speaking slowly at the time.

Poet in Residence said...

I've posted Return of Merlin on my 'Bard on the Run' blog just for you.

Feel free to wander over.

Anonymous said...

George, Andrew and I are interested in your use of the Polish word 'tesknota' and wonder whether it occurs in Bruno Schulz, whose fiction is suffused by homesickness and the title of whose only German story refersto homecoming also. We would be fascinated to learn what connotations 'tesknota' sends out and its etymology. Andrew, who was accused of being Polish by a border guard with a rifle on the train in Bulgaria, feels a strong nostalgia for Poland, a country to which he has never been.

Igor Prawn said...

The "goat" in "the field overhead" in Eliot's poem is no goat, it's the constellation Capricorn (the "field overhead" is the night sky, which is why it coughs at night, not by day); and the Jew isn't a Jew, and Gerontion isn't a man. (Gerontion is the human soul, waiting to be released from the body, which is the rented room he currently inhabits; the Jew who is the owner is the mundane preoccupation with the material world which the body enforces, Eliot's equivalent of Yeats's line about the "crone who keeps the till" or whatever it was).

Poet in Residence said...

Why do goats, coughing or othwerwise get such a bad press? Is it because of their feet?
I like goats for their head-butting smelly independence of spirit. I'm a goat myself come to that.
I also like pigs, even though they had the madness of man sent into them. In Chinese astrology I'm a pig.
I'm the two worst things!
I don't like ants, those follow-my-leader things held up in holy text or other as a wonderful role model for mankind and I detest those the coo-coo-cooo flying rats dive bombing me from church windows.
Prawns, Igor? I luv them in curry and prawn flavoured poppadums.
Thanks for bringing up this discussion agaian. I'd completely forgotten about it and I enjoyed reading once more through all the post. I expect that George will too.