First, the confession: I’ve been away in body as well as in mind. For two years my husband had been planning this road trip. For one year, it’s been almost an obsession with him and then with me. And, into the mix, as if it weren’t enough to be planning and obsessing over a road trip, I started a course of study that might lead me to a “second career.” (See my previous post here.) Sometimes I think I purposely set up roadblocks to writing. Anyone else I know would have been blogging about this trip, before and during. But not me. No, I was discreet. Only those who had a need to know knew of our plans. Now I’m back to my hot, humid home and our three cats who have (yet again) proven that they are loyal to whose-ever hand that feeds them, be it my hand or the pet sitter’s.
I’ll write about our trip later. For now I’ll just say that we drove to Casper, Wyoming, to view the Total Solar Eclipse. We saw it. It was a sight that will last me the rest of my life. Now, on to my review of Luanne Castle’s chapbook: Kin Types.
I took Kin Types on the road with me. It’s a very slim volume of poems which I received in the mail only a few days before our trip. I slipped it into one of my bags, sensing that the thirty pages of poetry and prose belied a depth and density that I’ve come to anticipate with Luanne’s writing. And yet I still wasn’t prepared for the wealth of stories I found among those pages.
Our first night out, in Olive Branch, Mississippi, I pulled Kin Types from my bag, thinking I would read a poem or two while my husband showered, before we turned off the lights. Instead, I read all the poems, totally captivated by the stories of Luanne’s ancestors. In her acknowledgement, she wrote:
for those who came before me
whose stories I was privileged
to try to inhabit, if only for a moment
Thanks to Luanne and another friend of mine (I’m talking about you, Jane), I’ve developed an interest in my own ancestry: who was it that came before me, what happened to them, how (if at all) their existence has informed my own, besides the obvious connection of DNA. So, with a slight chill, I read the first sentence of “The Nurturing of Nature and its Accumulations”:
Anything that happened to my grandmother before she got pregnant imprinted the genes she shared with my father and then with me.
When we study our ancestry, we are trying to learn about ourselves. It’s an ego trip. It’s “all about me.” There is that element in Luanne’s poems, that she unearths these stories in order to learn more about herself, about how “those who came before” her made her who she is today. With Kin Types, though, the self interest is but one element. Luanne writes these poetic portraits with such sympathy, with such deep understanding (appreciation, perhaps even love) for the circumstances each ancestor faced and suffered through, that they almost literally walked off the page and into my heart. The most poignant of these is “And So It Goes,” a prose piece that reads like a novel, the courtship and separation (through death) of Pieter and Neeltje, their beginning and their end. Americans like to romanticize our ancestors’ struggles as they set new roots in what was a “new” world, trying to escape poverty or boredom, oppression or suppression. But their lives, especially the women’s lives, were not the stuff of romantic adventure:
Neeltje did things without fanfare or explanation, and that’s how she died. [. . .] he realized that even though she’d been at his side since their teens, he had the sense he didn’t know her. [. . .] He’d made her a mother many times over, but she had been only a girl.
Death is everywhere in these poems, as it was everywhere in the lives Luanne writes about:
Nine children born to Neeltje. Two funerals. (“And So It Goes”)
Gerrit is buried / twice, once in Santiago and / later near his brother in Kalamazoo. (“More Burials”)
His dark blond curls were so / like her brother Lucas when a baby / and not yet the young man she kissed / in his black coffin. (“New Life, New Music”)
She listens to her husband outside the church / door, reads the casualty lists, hovers around / those waiting. Now her big brother’s letter / like his touch on their dying mother’s cheek, / is enough. (“Once and Now”)
One, / two, and then a third was lost / and a fourth born. (“The Fat Little House”)
Death is everywhere but so is life. The death of babies, of brothers to war, of women dying without “fanfare or explanation” occurs among the birth of babies, the growth of families, the setting of roots. It is history; not just that of Luanne’s ancestry but of everyone’s ancestry.
What Kin Types did for me, both as a writer and a reader, is help me realize that my own family history, presumably boring and uneventful compared to those who can claim lineage to kings and generals, was anything but boring and uneventful for the people who lived those lives. Their lives might only be expressed in a few handwritten lines across decades of census taking, a marriage certificate here, a death certificate there. Only a few photographs may exist. But each atom of information is a spark to a story.
Like DNA, the histories found in Kin Types are the building blocks of a poet. Luanne’s poetry gives her ancestors’ stories a living, breathing quality that make them unforgettable. I’m grateful to Luanne for sharing her histories and for inspiring me to continue my own exploration.
If you don’t already know Luanne, please visit this post where she graciously answered my questions about writing poetry: An Interview with Luanne Castle.
You can get your own copy of Kin Types at the Finishing Line Press website: Kin Types.