Here, the family goes back generations on every side, branching back and leafing out into family names given to roads and old houses, people distant and gone, their names reduced to casual labels or residue of ownership clinging to what is forever out of their grasp. A house in Milton in which my grandmother was born. A cemetery nearby in which her father is buried with row upon row of old stone markers, but no sign or name for that place, just a chain link fence setting it off from homes that have been built around it. A house in an old book that belonged to the Vail family and now is just a series of black and white images of early American architectural innovations. Other cemeteries, with names and larger markers in which are buried descendants of English settlers and descendants of Quebecois, cemeteries separated by miles, both in terms of distance and bias. My other grandfather with his people and my other grandmother with her people.
I've been raised to respect and honor place and property and memory. The keepers of these memories, of what pictures mean and who is in them, of the significance of objects, had been in the hands of my grandparents and my great aunts and uncles. They're gone. My parents are now the keepers--I don't know that I can ever be that. Who I am is defined by some sort of opposition to where I'm from. I am a keeper of certain objects, but the vast store of them, the stories behind the rest seem beyond my power to organize. In our family, these objects will, eventually, become a set of puzzle pieces scattered among families expanding like branching capillaries, with the pieces carried further and further from their interlocking parts.
I have (had) a friend who, I am quite certain believed I would send him some sort of coded messages in poems I wrote that involved things he said or did, or anecdotes or stories in which he played a part. This despite his high level of literary sophistication and sharp interpretive mind. I did not, of course, the poem being its own house built of collected parts. Hass writes in "Meditation at Lagunitas": "it hardly had to do with her."
But the poem is its own place. Milton has Satan say, "the mind is its own place." And the poem picks and chooses among artifacts and objects and people and scraps of memory to assemble its own time and reality. There is no true responsibility to memory or family. Only an assemblage of what life leaves in its wake. Is this ethical? I don't know. Parts of us, what remains of us, will be scattered through objects and memories and unlabeled photos. What is my responsibility with artistic assemblage?