Becoming an Ancestor
by Lucille Lang Day
Cervená Barva Press
Reviewed by: Lenore Weiss
Within the glowing embers of this book, storyteller, poet, and scientist Lucille Lang Day weaves together the threads of her ancestors as she guides us through past, present, and toward the future.
Opening with the timeline poem of “Journeys,” we meet John Peckham who renounces his landed gentry father and finds himself on a ship headed toward Massachuetts, “driven by the wind’s stiff whip.” A female member of the Peckham line eventually meets up with Bill Lang, the progeny of an escaped German baron’s son in California, and they have a son.
Day’s mother of the Bumpus (formerly Bompasse) family that originally had settled in Acushnet, Massachutsetts, travels to California under her own set of life circumstances to eventually marry a Peckham/Lang descendent, Bill. And so the stage is set for the rest of the book. We pay close attention as Day wonders:
“Where am I going? / How will I know when I’m there?”
The journey begins where most of ours start: at home. Like many daughters, the poet holds court in the kitchen, assisting her mother with baking; however, she tells us that her mother gave her, “too much butter or sugar, too little truth.” And her father, who photographs landscapes, “red-orange plumes / fanning from the horizon,” is “The Man Who Believed in Santa Claus.”
In a poem of that same title, she sees him, “in his knit cap riding shotgun / at Santa’s side, helping steer eight reindeer / past the moon, in a starry winter sky.”
After establishing a complex and layered relationship with both her mother and father, the poems travel in different directions, reaching back toward Plymouth in 1621, to the ancestors of the original Bompasse clan, filling in with other stories that artfully track us through history to George Washington’s army, the California Gold Rush, and the Civil War, and then to the story of Angenette Sampson who finds love in the arms of a Wampanoag chief, and whose granddaughter becomes the poet’s mother. Tracing her lineage, the poet discovers that she is of Native-American ancestry, something that she intuited in the poem, “I Always Knew It.”
“. . . when my Native American studies / teacher said, “I think you’re an Indian,” and when my aunt told my mother, / ‘Tell her the truth. Tell her / what she wants to hear.’”
I had a sense of Day spending hours reading through ledgers and hunting down links on the Internet. The language of many poems reflects that deep research. We hear that Hannah Bumpus’ son was publicly whipped for “idle and lasivius behavior. . .for stricking and abusing his parents…”
While most poems are written as free-form narratives, Day also presents an occasional villanelle or a set of “delinquent sonnets.”
We travel at the side of the poet until she stands at a hospital bed grieving her daughter, who is dying from a rare cancer. The poet’s powerful invocation to “Live!” is not enough to save Liana, but as the book progresses, Day goes on to celebrate the future of her grandchildren and realizes that she stands on the threshold of herself becoming an ancestor.
Becoming an Ancestor reminds us all how we live our daily lives to create family histories for future generations. Day’s story is one of those treasures.
–Lenore Weiss, author of Mortal, and winner of the Clark-Gross prize