I’m Not an Ancestor Unless Someone Comes After Me

October 2, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: Cortney Lamar Charleston on “Ancestors” by Adrienne Su

We see them as old, but they were thirty once,
thirteen. They’re dead, not aged. They seldom

imagined us; we were unknowable, an idea.

Today would have been my paternal grandfather’s birthday, something I’m reminded of when my own father re-shares a Facebook post from four years ago, a video of my grandfather blowing out his birthday candles to mark his 92nd lap around the sun. He is as I remember him, whether by choice or the circumstance of our overlapping time, and I write this as I am now, perhaps as he never imagined. I read this poem and the ghosts are called from the walls. Akin to its speaker, I’ve always been sensitive to the memories of people I cannot remember, whose names I do not know and yet I know them so well, somehow. How? I think for a moment, and then write the word imagination in blood on a sheet of paper that had the compassion to cut me.

One earthquake, one defeat of a dynasty,

and we could be wiped from the future.

It’s 2017, and I am nowhere near the Asian continent, look nothing like what Adrienne Su looks like. It’s 2017, and Donald J. Trump is President of the United States, defeating what some had already been calling the Clinton political dynasty. It’s 2017, and we could be wiped from the future—my people, I mean (whatever that means), who are still under attack in the same ways they always have been, and as such, I am just like my ancestors: this is why I know them so well. Imagination already has my blood; imagination, take my body, too.

Some centuries, they fought off invaders
(human, insect, microbial) but embraced

the concept of heaven for being practical,
a way of eliciting virtue, without being gullible

enough to trade this life for the hereafter.

I’m so desperate for something good I’d be willing to die for it, and I’m not the only one that’s true for. I feel I’m so undeserving of goodness, I go through with living just to earn it, and I’m not the only one that’s true for. In the end, I hope I didn’t fail and I hope the ones that tried to harm my loved ones and me did.

When it was time to send sons and daughters

across the Pacific, they let them travel and thus
ensured the survival of the people, minus

the land, and later, the language. This is how

I have a contentious history with water. I have a contentious history with the English language. I believe these two things go without saying, I believe this should be a surprise to nobody with any curiosity about the world they live in. Here’s one thing I’ve discovered while I’ve been out there: even if you have only one option in front of you, you’re still making a choice. My folks, themselves, where pulled to Chicago from the Deep South, and they simply didn’t fight the vector of the force, leaving behind the land they knew, though the language had been lost several generations before. This is how I happened, though I can’t say this is how we survived.

is trying this place, which feels like nowhere,

which is how the creation myth always begins,
with emptiness wanting to be broken.

I try this place (city, state, country, planet) and it tries me in return. Which of us will break first? Will what rises because of it be worth it?

Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. In 2017, he was awarded a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His work has appeared in Poetry, New England Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, River Styx and elsewhere.

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