A new poetry collection from Day (co-editor: Red Indian Road West, 2016, etc.) blends historical imagining with powerful lyrics from the present.
Dedicated to the poet’s parents, the opening poem, “Journeys,” tells of the Mayflower ancestor who survived being swept overboard to eventually father one strand of her DNA: “In my double helices he feasts / with Wampanoags on venison, / roast goose, wild turkey, pumpkins.” This man unites with the People of the First Light far back in the poet’s family tree; musings on her Native American lineage recur in the poems. “In my round and spindly cells where the past softly breathes,” she writes, she always wanted to meet Native Americans. In these pages, she does encounter them, and several Pilgrims, too. Elizabeth Tilley Howland (1607-1687), for example, comes to life in the poem dedicated to her. As a 13-year-old, she crossed from England to Plymouth—to bear 10 children, survive her husband, then decide who will get her things when she dies: “Who will read my great Bible / and small one? Who / will sleep in my feather bed, // feed my sheep, wear / my linen and woolen clothes, / use my pans to bake their bread?” Far more poignant than any textbook lesson, these lives swell. The present-day poems remind readers to mark what they are given. Of one friend, the speaker asks an arresting question: “When did you stop being / a young woman with long honey-colored hair?” Even deeper questions underlie a suite of poems for Liana, the poet’s daughter, as she is treated for cancer and, after, as she is mourned. The poem “Live!” is almost unbearable—for the surge of desire and simultaneous acquiescence to fate: “And if you can’t live any longer / in your beautiful body… / then live in the sighs and easy / smiles of your children, / the muscular rooms of // our hearts.”
To become an ancestor requires knowledge of those who came before and concern for those who will follow; these poems travel that ground skillfully.