Posts Tagged ‘Imaginary Ancestors’

These are big game bees. When I’m after something
sweet I want to make the most of it. Thousands of
miles from Nepal, I’m on the level
summer deck behind my house. It’s happy hour. I’m
wearing nasturtium colors, oleander
perfume, powder. Seductive as a flower, I study
the wings on my wine glass. I am
haloed with bees and beatitudes.

Nine hunters of honey in Nepal, Mani Lal their head.
This afternoon I’d gladly join them. I know
how to cling to the cliffside, avert my eyes from the
dizzying drop. I can pray. Here and now, I reap
the harvest from years of religious
modesty, countenance serene as a china plate. Draped
in a veil of drones, queens and workers,
I am high on experience in the attic apartments where

wasps and urban yellowjackets swarm under the eaves
every spring. Imaginary beekeeper,
I will not be checked by the actual, will hold onto
my friend wrote more surely than Sylvia Plath.
Step, step, bamboo! Setting my foot on the fiber
latter like Jacob’s dream angels, ascending,
descending. These lights of euphoria visit me rarely
now that I’m older than Mani Lal.

The honeybees I choose–Apis laboriorsa, the world’s
largest– must create a legend to equal
the story of Ambrose: a swarm from the brood comb
settled on my mouth as I lay in my cradle, the omen
propitious. It was raining honey.
Here lies the honey-tongued Hillsboro poet! What if
the bees make me suffer at times. I tweeze
the stingers from arms and legs, keeping my eyes on

Mani Lal, lips chanting my mantras. He carries a
bamboo basket lined with wild goatskin.
I would take my skin from the coat my father bought.
Her milk recovered my life from the foxglove of
formula. Here is her snapshot in the family album.

Madeline DeFrees
Imaginary Ancestors (1990)

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Three times a week Mother set fire to the orphanage,
watched it burn to the ground.
If we poked among cold ashes we learned
records were destroyed. She cried over what we might
find. When the sun reappeared
she wrote letters. Tell me the true facts. You must
be hiding something. She thought
U.S. Grant had left her a fortune, too extravagant
for an orphan. The letter came back.
She tore up the Poles. What do they know? she said
watching eyes in the mirror
that were clearly Irish. They’ve mixed up the notes.

My father worked a bank that went broke. She took
to remodeling his side of the house. Dad
couldn’t escape the perfect picture
frame. She turned him French overnight, beat the Dutch
out of his name, dabbling in white-collar crime,
the capital flourished in the middle.
That was before the Idaho Panhandle. It was great
on the Payette Beach, Mother said, looking
magisterial. The Blackfeet came into Brother Gene’s
store and you had to watch them like Indians.
On our floor her wishes were law. For a minute
I nearly forgot she was Mother.

Madeline DeFrees
from Imaginary Ancestors (1990)

Commentary: One of my students, Chris, gave me Madeline DeFrees’ book, Imaginary Ancestors, and I’ve loved it since it deals so closely with themes of history, memory, and identity. This poem, “Burning Questions,” concerns Madeline’s mother, who was an orphan, and couldn’t ascertain either her parentage or her ethnicity, despite investigation.

Of course, you do not have to be an orphan to be uncertain about who you are. Society often gives the impression that your identity is “who you are,” but really, identity is “who you are becoming.” And we are always becoming who we are. This is partly what my new little chapter in A Poet’s Life, “Statement Concerning Ethnic Identity,” is about. Once I posted the chapter, I wanted to poet this poem, too, because it surely connects to questions of discovery and perception and a desire, sometimes-painful-because-it-is-so-strong, to know who we really are.

And the ending of the poem reminds me of Louis Owens’ essay, “Finding Gene,” in his book, I Hear the Train. That’s important, too.

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