Audio

the name before the name before mine

March 11, 2019

Jay Besemer: I’m Jay Besemer, and this is PoetryNow. This poem, “the name before the name before mine,” emerges from some research I’ve been doing into my family’s history on both sides, specifically, as it relates to involvement in racial terrorism about a 100 years ago. And also, on my father’s side, the ways that my ancestors’ settlement in upstate New York interacted with the treaties and various subsequent violations of those treaties with the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. This is all coming about because I needed to travel a lot between here and upstate New York and Western New York to care for my mother as she was dying of cancer. So, trying to take on those challenges while I’ve been living with chronic illness myself. I’ve been engaging these historical questions largely because of what’s called generational trauma, the way that these violences come home to roost, as it were, right in our cells. What is the relation between the consequences of actions in the past and where they landed in my mother’s body, and in my body?

(READS POEM)

the name before the name before mine

the unknown has hold of me and its grip is strong as honey on the underside of a spoon  

the unknown i mean is not the usual one the future the tomorrow of survival        

but the past and what happened in the name of the name after mine and in the name of the name before mine    

i do not know enough to speak i do not know enough to remain silent       

there is a fear that holds me and it sounds like wind it sounds like katydids in catalpa       

ah the tall grass of the days before i knew there was a before me   

where do i live if there’s no home remaining

where do i live if the home i helped build can never be mine and the one i was born into never was 

* * *

I’m also thinking about the larger context of what it means to accept responsibility for what my ancestors have done, so it reframes the whole question of what home is.

(QUOTING FROM POEM)

where do i live if there’s no home remaining // where do i live if the home i helped build can never be mine and the one i was born into never was 

If I helped build part of a home where my father once lived, he may have owned that parcel of land, but it isn’t his land, wasn’t his land when he owned it. Can land be a human being’s possession? I was born here, but is this my land? Is this my place? Well, I don’t think so.

Katie Klocksin: That was Jay Besemer and his poem “the name before the name before mine.” I’m Katie Klocksin and this is PoetryNow, a production of The Poetry Foundation. For more about this series, go to poetryfoundation.org/poetrynow.

Jay Besemer considers heredity and the uncertainty of one’s past.

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