“A language is not words / it is the stories / that are told in it, / the stories that are never told.” —Margaret Atwood, Four Small Elegies, from Two-Headed Poems, Oxford University Press, 1978
By that standard, our language in this country must be bursting at the seams with untold stories. Thousands of ‘home children’ have gone to their graves feeling too humble or ashamed to tell us their stories, just as my grandfather did. It’s one thing for a writer like myself to wonder how someone could possibly burn the pages of their own lives. But what if you’ve been humiliated into feeling that your stories don’t matter? In such a situation most people will carefully lock up their stories, their inner lives, and never let them out.
Although still early in my research, I’m finding a similar theme in other families who have ‘home children’ ancestors: a deafening silence. Or at best, a few grains of anecdotes told by grandparents or parents. Sometimes only one anecdote, to express an entire childhood’s angst at being torn from the country of one’s birth and sent alone to another world. Like clues to a mystery, these were scattered across the landscapes of our families, maybe in hopes that the children and grandchildren would pick up the trail and unlock the stories.
But of course in the typical flow of day-to-day living, we tend to ignore our histories. The pressures of work, the demands of raising a family, the need to leave our own mark somehow—all of this gets in the way of looking at our own past. In today’s era of carefully cultivated historical amnesia, the tendency is even more pronounced. Dictators aren’t keen on us learning the lessons of history, after all.
But as I’ve written, we are history, walking history. Our DNA carries the history of our family and our species, and as Carl Jung explained, goes far deeper than merely skin and eye colour. Cultural myths and stories, music and other spiritual qualities often find themselves echoed in our own lives even if we grew up ignorant of our culture of origin. On a psychological level, unfinished business from our family past often careens back into the lives of descendants with a wicked backhand. We either tend to it or pass the problem along to our descendants. Family systems psychologist John Bradshaw has demonstrated how unresolved issues are often repeated in surprising detail by descendants. And since, as I wrote in Star Seeds (New Orphic Publishers, 2009), “We’re here to learn, here to burn / the spirit pure,” it’s worth paying attention.
And though some nations such as Australia and Britain have taken the step of making amends, for many who have already passed on, it’s too late. With or without apology, the effects linger in our national psyche: a people who often feel rootless, disconnected, unable to settle and alone in a vast landscape. Atwood has written eloquently of this aspect of Canadian character. In Two Headed Poems (Solstice Poem) she writes:
Beyond the white hill which maroons us
out of sight of the white
eye of the pond, geography
is crumbling, the nation
splits like an iceberg, factions
shouting Good riddance from the floes
as they all melt south…
It may be that we will have to content ourselves with piecing together the stories of our ‘home children’ ancestors from the fragments left to us. As Atwood says in another poem in this stunning collection, Marrying the Hangman, “history cannot be / erased, although we can soothe ourselves by / speculating about it.” I would take it a step further: just as the elders of the Siksika Blackfeet of Montana teach, the realm of the ancestors is very real, and therefore healing goes both forward and backward in time. At very least, it can help lay the children’s ghosts to rest. They are calling out to us even now, as evident by the resurgence of interest in the British child immigrants and attempts to make restitution.
In presentations to audiences at various museums around the Columbia Basin, I begin my talk by reading the poem The Man Without Stories. In it I meld my own life with that of my grandfather Cyril William Joyce, since his journey has also become my journey. In my long poem for him, Immigrant Child (too long to publish here), I’ve had to use what details I know about his life and confabulate or even invent others. Call it poetic license if you will. Or call it reclaiming the stories he and thousands of other Canadians lost.
I’m grateful to the Columbia Basin Trust and Columbia Kootenay Cultural Alliance for project support.
The Man Without Stories
—for the ‘Home Children’ and Cyril William Joyce
I am the man without stories.
I was born in a prosperous country
in a halcyon era, grandson
of an anonymous cog.
Grown fat on the marrow
of the nations who came before us,
sewn into our medicine blankets
with smallpox and whiskey.
What is there to tell?
I was born in the platinum glare
of an antiseptic hospital room,
stabbed by blue-bladed light,
my new body screaming
like its skin had been torn off,
every cell white-hot in my brain.
I went to school the first day
gripping my mother’s hand.
Earned a row of gold stars
in fifth grade, met the girl
next door under spruce boughs
to paper her with kisses.
Nothing exceptional in that.
Sinuous wings rippled me out
my bedroom window—away,
away, anywhere but here, where
the biggest stick rules the herd.
My people were working class, farmers and
millers coaxing life from rented soil.
Our lives weighed little.
Surplus babies of market forces,
we were last week’s grits cast
into the gutters of Empire.
Squint-eyed hawks quoting scripture
plucked us from the filth of our sins,
saving us from ourselves.
Cultured us in neat rows,
spit-and-polish carrots, our eyes
gouged from the wound of the world.
Exported us in ships to land
in the teeth of a country
gone snowblind. We wondered
if the land would erase us utterly.
Though we became millions,
we are alone in the indigo dark
of a northern lake, the loon’s call
an echo of generations
whose stories are forgotten,
eerie anthem on waves
spreading in linked circles
from the mute heart of the world.
©2009 Sean Arthur Joyce