They gave us their hearts
with leaky valves.
The tools they fashioned
hang on our walls
though we no longer reap or sow.
They lumber through our dreams
murmuring of blood
till morning mist rises
and we wake
wearing their faces, our voices theirs.
The Undead in the title of my new collection of poems are the ones who came before us, who in part made us the way we are, who defined the limits of our hopes. It’s spooky, but it’s not supernatural. Our collective history on this continent has been misrepresented, misremembered and, most often forgotten. Our settler ancestors have been too busy transforming the environment to really know and understand it, with consequences still to be seen. Some say the past is best forgotten, or better, repudiated. But not so fast. With no sense of the past behind us, the fast-approaching future haunts us.
Most of my forebears emigrated from England and Ireland directly to Canada in the 1830s and 1840s, but very soon, as they married the locals and became Canadian, their children and grandchildren had ancestors, through their Canadian spouses, who had been Champlain’s filles du roi or, like mine, had been Puritans and Separatists seeking religious freedom in New England in the 1600s. Even now immigrants from, say, Taiwan or Syria settle in Canada and before long, some of their children or grandchildren will probably be able to trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower. That’s part of our story, and it holds some of the answers to how our country got to be the way it is. Faulkner said “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.”
Anyway, how about my book, The Undead?
Beginning with a family history compiled in 1927 and presented by his sons to my great-grandfather Eli Morton on the shores of Lake Simcoe north of Toronto, I try to follow the path Mortons and the neighbours they married trod from the northern States to the shores of Lake Simcoe (in what was then the Home District of Upper Canada). That was home to my greatgrand-father Eli’s grandfather, Elder Squire Morton. An itinerant lay preacher, Squire ranged widely on his twice-yearly missionary trips, between Niagara in the west and Oshawa in the east, and he gave a corner of his farm for the first Methodist (“Christian”) church in his community. His grave marker in Unionville cemetery quotes New Testament scripture about having “fought the good fight” and continues with ever smaller, more cramped and illegible scripture, indicative perhaps of the sermons the elder gave in kitchens, school rooms, and on hillsides “from Sharon north to the lake.”
That evangelical streak, which continued well into the 20th century in parts of the family, was deeply grounded on the other side of the family too. In my poems I’ve focused on only a few of them, because I have an idea of how quickly such stories get boring.
Also, I don’t look only at my direct forebears – my interest isn’t about blood lines or even DNA, the family tree is wide. It’s the cultural baggage we carry (sure, white privilege, in my case) that I’d like to understand and, if possible, influence. In this I guess I’m like the radical dissenters in colonial New England. Like Obadiah Holmes (my wife Mary Lee Bragg’s direct ancestor, as well as Abraham Lincoln’s), who took his thirty lashes at the Boston whipping post for false preaching and afterward said they felt like rose petals. Like Jonathon and Richard Dunham, alias Singletary, whose wanderings and rantings brought him charges of witchcraft in Salem (and one of whose descendants, Barack Obama, became president).
The Puritans arrived on the continent not so much as invaders but as refugees from religious persecution, wanting to be left alone to create their new Jerusalem in peace,
where dwelt “none of contrary view”
Neither Quaker nor Baptist
nor vagrant nor vagabond.”
This sounds wrong to us now, when diversity has replaced piety as a social virtue, and the Puritans’ wish to remain separate from the rest of the world was as doomed as that of the native peoples. But I’m afraid that their conviction they were saved and everyone else was damned got in the way of peace and respect, and shades of that attitude linger in some minds today, hindering us in getting to reconciliation. Just one of the ways the undead continue to haunt us.
A breaking point came in 1676 with what is known as King Phillip’s War. The war ended terribly for King Phillip, the Wampanoag chief who tried to take back the land he had sold. Many died in the fighting, and more from disease or starvation after being driven out of their villages. The rest were taken in and absorbed by neighboring tribes. English settlers suffered badly too: in proportion in the population, King Phillip’s War was more devastating than the Civil War two centuries later. A third of English towns and villages were destroyed or abandoned, including Groton, Massachusetts, where two of my ancestors (John Nutting and his son John) were killed, and another (Major Simon Willard) led the militia that raised the siege of the town. In the kind of collective punishment that I decried when practised against Sitting Bull’s Lakota in my book The Hundred Cuts, the Wampanoag and their allies attacked English farms at random, including the home of my ancestor Thomas Eames, who left an itemized account of every lamb, wagon, blanket and sack of corn he lost, beginning with “a wife and nine children.” The compensation awarded him by the colonial government after the war was “200 acres near to Mount Waite,” a fair description of where King Phillip’s home village had been located, the last piece of land he did not sell.
Working back through time, the way researchers do, my series attempts to wind back the centuries to the moment when a Wampanoag walked out of the forest and said to the Pilgrims, “Welcome English, let us help each other.”
Then I step back to the present, with the future careening toward us at a terrifying pace. We face tough challenges, steep odds. But then, so did they, the undead.
Have we all now turned millennial?
Après moi, you say, the year of the flood.
But we’ve seen the world end before, on the big screen,
and we feel helpless. Hopeless.
For each of us the future is brief.
Maybe that’s why imagination
turns dystopian. Without us, we say
the world will be empty, desolate.
Look back. They had so much
to look forward to then –
ourselves, strong and free,
wearing their faces.