The bodies of my great-great grandparents were exhumed in 1942 to make room for an American military base where nuclear weapons may or may not have been secretly kept.
Thomas and Jane Cooney were two of approximately 625 people who were removed from three Newfoundland cemeteries that year. Having died recently (1928 and 1930, respectively), they were among the minority identified and re-interred beneath their original shared headstone (inscribed with the epigraph above). Hundreds of other Argentians who remained anonymous – many more of our relatives among them – were buried next to them in a mass grave at Freshwater. According to historians, “the funerals to the new cemetery took place at night, to minimize the traumatic effect on the relatives of the dead.”
I discovered these facts about my great-great grandparents last week. Jake, the kids, and my extended family have found it curious and somewhat amusing that since purchasing a subscription to a genealogy website on a whim, I’ve been
obsessed preoccupied with researching family history. Since I began this project, I’ve found actual photographs of long-dead, never seen relatives and shared them with cousins (and fourth cousins) on my Facebook page; at the dinner table, I’ve regaled the kids with stories of our third-cousin-three-times-removed Captain George Cleveland (also known as “Sakuuaqtiruniq the Harpooner”), who “survived bear attacks, shipwrecks, famine, epidemics, and storms; once drifting lost at sea for five days on a slab of ice without food..” before renouncing his US citizenship and settling in to a life the arctic tundra among his many Aivilingmiut descendants; I’ve spent dozens of hours tracking destitute millworkers through the slums and workhouses of Blackburn in the 1800s. Half-Irish (?) me has yet to definitively track a Foley, Cooney, Green, Dowd, or McHail back to Ireland. I’ll keep trying.
But what’s both troubling and compelling about this research is how little I know about where I come from. Before I started, I knew snippets of my grandparents’ histories, less about my great grandparents’. Beyond that, I knew nothing – not even their names.
Much has been said about American rootlessness, especially in poetry – independence and enterprise, the freedom of the open road, and at the same time a need for connection and grounding through culture and history. When I think about poetry in the context of being an observer of the present moment in all its dimensions – and a scribe of that experience to the best of my ability – I think of this struggle with rootlessness and uncertainty about belonging as one of those things not quite unique, but definitive of that experience of 21st century America.
If someone had asked me ten years earlier what I thought I would be doing in ten years, an answer that I would certainly not have given was “getting ready to buy the house I grew up in.” Of course, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be working in the Elevator Industry either. But stranger than settling into a career where my lifelong phobia of all things elevatorial has morphed into a fascination with the mechanics of the language of vertical transportation is that I’ve become near giddy as moving day approaches and I prepare to move my family into the home I itched and struggled to get away from so fiercely during all of those angsty teenage years.
My daughter Summer is at the end of seventh grade, almost exactly the age I was when my parents bought the house in 1989. A solid American Foursquare, it was built in 1925 by a successful whaling captain and then handed down to his daughter, who in turn sold it to my parents. There were rumors that the whaler had hidden money somewhere in the house, but twenty five years of renovations and treasure hunting have turned up nothing so far. Anyone have a metal detector I can borrow?
All of this has me thinking, again, about place. Place in writing, place as it relates to identity, the idea of place holding memory, or energy. How has being a writer who has never left my hometown for more than a week or two (save the six months I was sent to live with my father – don’t ask ) – found its way into my writing?
Many of the other writers I know, especially those who grew up in small towns where they were obviously “different” – left home for college or travel or some other period of growth. While I had many ideas about doing something like that, the choices I made rooted me deeply in this struggling space. Between the ages of 17 and 23, I went through a period of compulsive moving, where I moved more than twenty times. If I lived alone, I couldn’t stand my own company and grew restless. If I had roommates, they were driving me crazy and I needed to live alone. If I was in a relationship, it only made sense to move in together since we spent all our time together anyway. When the relationships fell apart, it was time to move again. I was moving constantly – only never beyond a fifteen mile radius of the hospital where I was born.
After I had children, something in me did begin to settle. I started to see the positives of living in my town; the proximity to family, a good school system, a terrific library. Working through a once limiting fear of driving and FINALLY getting a license taught me that many of the places I wanted to be were driveable. And attending a low-res college helped me realize a dream of studying writing in Vermont while maintaining my base at home.
Making a decision to settle permanently in my birthplace wasn’t a realization that came easily or without research or introspection. And buying my parents’ house? NEVER saw that one coming – but it makes sense. It’s in a nice neighborhood, it has plenty of space for my growing family, and the neighbors are terrific. The kids love the house, there are lots of large windows for the cats to nap in, and the house holds so many good memories. I wrote my first serious poems in that house, in the sunny second floor bedroom where my youngest daughter and soon to be stepdaughter will lay on their own beds, staring up at the ceiling and daydreaming, listening to the teenagers revving their engines in the high school parking lot.
So as a writer, I ask (again, and I’m sure I’ll be asking some more) – how does the place where we’re used to standing affect the way we look at the things we’re looking at? How does being rooted into place work its way into poems? Can place be NOT-written into poems? I think about Lorine Niedecker and how the floods that affected her home and family every year – forcing them to evacuate – and how that water worked its way into so many her poems. She never really left Wisconsin – how would her body of work have been different if she had moved to New York? What about Fairhaven has been worked into mine that I can’t see from my backyard?
This photo of Fort Phoenix State Reservation is courtesy of TripAdvisor
Last week, I had the honor of being tagged by poet Michael Klein for the Next Big Thing. Michael’s new book is THE TALKING DAY, and you can check out his blog post here.
What is your working title of your book?
ATOM FISH: A Poem by Maggie Cleveland
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Initially, the poem was borne of its title – I had this really freaky dream where a colleague, a straight-laced gentleman who I don’t believe is interested in poetry approached me and asked if I ever worked with homophones when I wrote poems. He gave me the example “Atom Fish” and “Adam Fish.”
When I woke up, I Googled the term “Atom Fish” to see if perhaps I’d overheard it somewhere (unintentional plagiarism is an ongoing concern), also to find out if the term had meaning outside the dream realm. I came across the newspaper article “Atom Fish of Changing Weight Make H-bomb,” written in 1950, and also some advertisements for Russian video games and fishing lures.
At the same time, I thought about Adam. I’d recently finished reading a book that touched on the idea of Adamic Language, or divine language, which some have theorized is the natural language of all humans. While I was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, today I identify as an agnostic. So when I came across this concept, of course that history, those associations were in the back of my mind – I understood Adamic language to be the place we started, the instinctual base of language that all humans used until we branched off into separate civilizations and societies, spread out across the globe, and the language took off down different paths, these paths from which our current language evolved.
Here, I love the idea of cellular memory. We store the memories of our ancestors in our whole bodies, our cells, they were passed down and in turn WE pass them down through the generations in our DNA. Why does memory and experience – or our consciousness itself – have to be relegated to one fixed place, in the head/brain? Why can’t we hold it throughout our full bodies as well? I like the idea that this is possible, that we have all of this, all of these experiences within all of us.
Supposing we do – and supposing there is an original language – then we must, on a cellular, deep-instinctive-memory level, have that language and have within us a knowledge and understanding of the language behind all languages, of the true words behind the words. So. There I had Adam, these big ideas. Then there was a fish, which was the fishing community I grew up in and the common symbol of the Catholic tradition (which I was the first in my family to break from). And then Atom, which first brought to mind the Atom Bomb.
When I was about six years old, one of my greatest fears was that every plane flying overhead was about to drop the atomic bombs that would annihilate us all. I watched and waited. I remember being a little older and flipping through the TV guide at my great grandmother’s house, seeing advertisements for THE DAY AFTER, some kind of post-apocalyptic miniseries that scared the hell out of me. I remember the black and yellow fallout shelter signs on the old school buildings in New Bedford, and the stories my uncles told about bombing drills during school where they’d have to drop everything and hide under their desks. And then I remember being older, reading of the horrors of Hiroshima. WE did that? We were responsible for that? Our own country inflicted that greatest fear upon others, obliterating so many thousands of innocents?
There were the questions of history. I have my own questions I’m working through with familial history, place history, and my own personal history – and the permeability of / interchange between those histories. All bleed through to the present, and to the poem – in ATOM FISH there are mixed so many things, but really it is a long poem so I think it has breadth to contain them all. At least in this expression of the ideas. It trembles at the edges, but it generally holds its shape.
Perhaps some day I will use Russian video games and fishing lures to write another poem.
What genre does your book fall under?
Poetry, long poetry, epic (?) poetry, experimental / avant-garde poetry.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’d love to see it in dark, flickery claymation.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
ATOM FISH is one long, odd poem that attempts to realize / redefine one’s place in life through relationships to personal, familial, and place history; characters on the periphery of a dream state (“Adam Fish” and “Atom Fish”) observe and guide the narrator through a storied past, a jumbled, imperfect present, and a future imbued with love and weirdness.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The book was published by One Time Press of New London, CT.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
About a year. The revisions continued for another year.
What are you reading?
DA Powell’s CHRONIC. I’m also listening to the audiobook of Anna Karenina on my commute. And I just ordered a collection of Reginald Dwayne Betts‘ poetry after hearing a terrific interview with him on the Poetry Magazine podcast this morning.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The dedication in the book is “For the grandmothers, years dead and dying/ and the daughters who carry their names.”
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I work with patterns or rhythms in language. When the poem is viewed on the page, the lines are broken and the words are spaced in reinforcement of those patterns. When the piece is read aloud, it is performed with two voices, one male, one female. I think the poem is interesting because there are a number of dimensions to it.
Where can I get a copy of ATOM FISH?
ATOM FISH is available for purchase through the Newport Review website here. $11 includes shipping and a small donation to Newport Review.Digital and audio versions are forthcoming.
If you’d really like to read the book but that’s not in your budget, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you the poem.
You can read an excerpt from ATOM FISH at the terrific literary journal The Offending Adam.
The other writers, poets, and creative individuals with projects I’m excited about are tagged here: Kristen Stone, Jessamyn Smyth, Tom O’Brien, Ian Ross & Nicole Lagace.