by Angus Martin
All these people at my back,
watching me—out there—
people clothed in animal skins
and others only in body hair,
half animals themselves, poking me with sticks
in the soft parts of my unconscious,
startling me with sudden mad cries
and eliciting responses
that escape my knowledge
let alone my understanding.
I have been waking lately
in the middle of dreams, demanding
explanation, but they are secretive
and sly, and slide their sticks
under my bed and slink
along the walls, their shadowy backs
eluding me. But sometimes I will
lie awake and catch them unawares,
crouched in the middle of my room,
shielding small fires.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is wild, barely-inhabited country. Whenever I visit, I feel uneasy, as though a moose might charge at any moment, or the overbearing evergreens will scoop me up into their dark branches and hurl my body miles into the freezing depths of Lake Superior. In every town I’m struck by the gentle failure of attempts to civilize the place. Most of the 50’s-era buildings are musty and run-down and clump together at crossroads, not bothering to venture into the wilderness. Of the few human inhabitants I spot (Yoopers, they call themselves) most are big like bears, solid for cold winters. Call me cuckoo, but I love the place and make a point to go back every summer for an extended hike.
This July I brought three or four poems with me, not sure which one I would post on Grand Island, a beautiful spot across from Pictured Rocks, reached by a raggedy pontoon boat that pulls right up on the beaches. A few miles into our 10-mile hike, we happened upon a group of archeology students from Illinois State University on break from a dig, eating lunch and sunning themselves. Which poem I would use suddenly became clear.
They gave us a tour of the dig, a shallow 10-foot area, and shared their discoveries thus far: a handful of “projectile points” (what we’d call arrowheads), and some French trading beads dating from the time of “Contact” of Europeans and the island’s original inhabitants. The students were a genial group, but far more interested in the past under their feet than the poem I taped to a tree above them.
I, conversely, was positively giddy. I couldn’t believe my luck in having brought this particular poem with me. The subject matter, obviously, matched nicely with the site; but the poet, Angus Martin, was the person who first introduced me to hiking. My sister and I had stayed with him over 25 years ago on the Kintyre peninsula south of Glasgow. He was an expert hiker and could name all the plants along the way and knew which were edible; as the local historian (you can find one of his books here) and village postman, he entertained us as we walked with stories of the land and its people; and as a poet, (you can hear him here) he inspired us with his love of the Scottish countryside.
It’s tempting to apply what I know (admittedly information that’s 25 years old) of the poet to my understanding of this poem. But I’m stepping back to read “Ancestors” as if I never met him.
The speaker in the poem seems paranoid (“All these people at my back/ watching me”) and with good reason. Cavemen in his bedroom cast shadows, cry out, poke him with sticks, and light fires. But unlike Dickens’ Scrooge, he’s strangely unspooked by these night-time visitations. He’s amused by their nude and hairy bodies, perhaps a little unnerved, but mostly riveted by their presence in his life. The ancestors, on the other hand, seem threatened. They avoid being seen and lope along the walls like melancholy Peter Pans of the Paleolithic age.
My understanding of the strange scenario of the poem is that the poet is having a physical experience of mental activity. He imagines his unconscious as an organ, something that can be poked at with a stick. We all experience moments when our unconscious mind takes over and we feel the power of our primeval natures. For me, that wild spirit overwhelms me sometimes when I’m dancing (there was a reason I was seldom asked to dance in high school), or in childbirth or in another activity you can well imagine which leads to that. These experiences are as mysterious and elusive to the conscious mind as cavemen appearing and disappearing in a 21st century bedroom. To try to capture and restrain that kind of unthinking, emotional experience into the formal setting of a poem—a poem that rhymes, even—is ambitious. Perhaps this is the ambition of every poet.
Granted, the ancestors the archeology students unearthed were not the prehistoric ones of the poem. But the Upper Peninsula feels that way to me–pre-verbal and untouched. It frightens and attracts me, just as the bedroom creatures affect the poet. Each visit I want to leave quickly and get back to civilization; and as soon as I cross the Mackinaw Bridge, I’m longing to go back. Something fierce and free about the place claims me as its citizen.