restricted access 9. The Need for Routes: Genealogy in Irish American Poetry
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n i n e The Need for Routes Genealogy in Irish American Poetry Roots and Routes One of my first memories to become more than a hazy backward prospect into the beginnings of my conscious life, the kind of memory that by force of ritual shapes itself into one of the primary channels of identity , is my lying awake nights in my room in our walk-up apartment listening to foghorns sounding on the Narrows. Our four-room flat was five blocks from Shore Road and the white-capped harbor with its newly risen bridge, named for the Italian explorer Verrazano, the first European to pilot his boat up the strait. It was before Third Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, had become the acoustic for car alarms and latenight club goers, and the likely streetwalkers at that hour were men like my father—or my father himself on a Friday night after poker and drinks with his cronies—making their way home to their wives and fami­ lies, maybe a little wavery in the glow of whiskey and cigars, two if not three sheets to the wind. Already my old neighborhood, a paved-over grid of apartment buildings, rowhouses, and privileged homes near the shore, had changed from the Norwegian, Italian, and Irish enclave it was when my parents moved there after the War. Bakeries and other shop fronts with Greek and Middle Eastern names, some in Arabic script, now lined the avenue. Sally’s Luncheonette around the corner smelled of hamburgers, brisket, 249 250  c r o s s i n g s falafel, and tabouleh. In St. Anselm’s schoolyard at recess we asked each other our nationalities—“What are you?” “Irish.” “Greek.” “Lebanese.” Nationalities flashed between us like team names on baseball cards. We’d play basketball on the courts beside the Belt Parkway and, later, would drink smuggled beers behind the park house. And always the ship traffic crowded the harbor—freighters, tankers, the big liners steaming back to Europe. My best friends, Bobby and Tony, were Syrian and Leba­ nese, and my parents—whose idea of exotic food was spaghetti with clam sauce or Beef Lo-Mein—sampled spinach pies and baba ganoush one Sunday afternoon at Bobby’s parents’ house. My first world was hyphenated, the noun “American” always qualified by other histories . The sons and daughters of emigrants, we breathed the atmospheres of our inherited histories like air. What we did not consciously perceive was ourselves as part of a vast ongoing movement of people, part of a great passage composed of innumerable routes across geography and history. Still, throughout the neighborhood, the names of buildings inscribed traces of the new arrivals that mingled with first settlers: Anastasia Court, named after a Mafia don shot getting a haircut; the Barkaloo, a Dutch family that built the first farm below New Utrecht on this ridge above the bay. From every corner, every block, history whispered to us. Perhaps that’s what I heard those nights awake in bed, the murmuring confluence of history and our own small lives in the shifting currents of the Narrows, which, like history, defined our common ground. Tonight, as memory has it this time, my brother and I in the shared bedroom in Pearl Court, my parents asleep across the hall, I listen to the intermittent tones of ships churning in the harbor where the Hudson empties into Gravesend. Each sounds like the haunting call of an animal in the middle distance or a summons made out of hollowed wood or shell to convene the tribe. Often, when one invokes the metaphor of a tribal call, it brings to mind what Seamus Heaney called circumspectly “the shared calling of blood.”1 Despite his vaunted genius for evoking the sense of place and the poet’s almost numinous connection to his home ground, Heaney’s circumspection about the source of his own imaginative powers reflects a deeper current of skepticism that wisely rejects the claims of tribal identity—whether spawned by sectarian or racist estates. Though Yeats’s greatness and example for the art of poetry is indisputable, we hear a The Need for Routes  251 muted though powerful version of the shared calling of blood in “Pardon , Old Fathers,” the prefatory poem to Responsibilities. There, among the guiding figures of Yeats’s ancestry are “merchant and scholar who have left me blood / That has not passed through any huckster’s loin.” For Yeats, character is blood, is pedigree, and...


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Subject Headings

  • National characteristics, Irish, in literature.
  • Irish Americans in literature.
  • American poetry -- Irish American authors -- History and criticism.
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