This cousin of mine (twice removed) paid genealogists
to find us an archduke or a horse thief
with a handsome beard standing blurry but defiant
at the scaffold. She yearned for the carte de visite
of a Confederate cavalry major stiff
in his butternut coat and braids heroically
obliterated at Chancellorsville. Or a Choctaw Princess
in silvery white buckskins with a forever broken heart,
a pack of timber wolves instead of dogs,
and a Lover’s Leap named after her someplace
down in Pulaski County. But they found only peddlers
and Ohio dirt farmers, delinquent tax notices, three-line
obituaries and unreadable tombstones. Somewhere back
in the coal mining parts of Pennsylvania
a Klinkenberg married a Jones. Wilson divorced Wilson.
“Ahnentafel” is a German word meaning “ancestor table.” It is also a technical word used by genealogists, which Wikipedia defines as “a genealogical numbering system for listing a person's direct ancestors in a fixed sequence of ascent…” (see the rest of the article for an in-depth definition, including a bunch of math I don’t understand). At first I was a little worried that this strange (to non-genealogist English speakers anyway) word would be off-putting as a poem title, but its strangeness contributed to the chilliness of the rest of the poem, I thought. Also, I have a kind of superficial attraction to the German language, especially in the way it is used, abused, and parodied in World War II movies and TV shows such as Hogan’s Heroes, South Park, etc.
The first part of the poem addresses the fact that many family stories tend towards the heroic. Although the twice-removed cousin mentioned in the poem is made up, my mother’s side of the family is notorious for “embellishing” family history. For instance, my grandfather used to tell my mother he was with Teddy Roosevelt at the Battle of San Juan Hill. Since this battle took place in 1898 and my grandfather was born in 1901, this is clearly not true. Along the same lines, I inherited a Colt .38 revolver carried by his brother (my great-uncle Clarence Derrick) in World War I, which seems true enough (his draft card turns up on Ancestry.com), but the story I was told as a child that he captured a German U-boat single-handedly with this weapon is sheer fantasy. But unsubstantiated claims of ancestral wartime heroics and descent from Native Americans and European royalty abound in the United States. For instance, I worked with a guy with the middle name Windsor who was, of course, related to Queen Elizabeth II. Even a criminal ancestor can be someone to boast about, so long as he isn’t the creepy kind (Jesse James would be okay; Jeffrey Dahmer not so okay). The poem mocks family myths and pretensions by naming a few of the usual suspects: a Confederate martyr, a Wild West hoss thief, and a Native American princess.
The last part of the poem came about because of my job experiences at the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center (Fort Wayne, Indiana), where I index periodicals for PERSI (the Periodical Source Index). Although I am not a genealogist, I read (or skim) thousands of genealogy and history journal articles every year. This constant exposure to obituaries, 19th century train wrecks, WPA ex-slave oral history narratives, probate records, wills, cemetery relocations, and other such material has left me with a feeling of what might be called genealogical fragility (or, perhaps more cravenly, the fear of death and oblivion). It astonishes me how quickly our stories evaporate, the way catastrophic family events of 100 years ago mean nothing to us now. These things have to be hunted down by genealogists in deed transfers, coroner’s reports, and tax records that are often the only tangible traces our ancestors left behind. This constant exposure to the fragmentary, bureaucratic, and almost accidental places where our ancestors still exist became for me, as they say, an occasion for poetry.
Since the poem is basically made up of facts (if fraudulent ones), I took some pains trying to pick the right details. Although I have a tin ear, I was happy with the sounds “Chancellorsville” and “Choctaw” make in line seven (and Chancellorsville is, along with Appomattox and Antietam, the coolest sounding of the big Civil War battles). Pulaski County can be found in several US states (named after the Revolutionary War hero from Poland, Kazimierz Pułaski), and I chose it for no particular reason beyond liking the sound of it. The end of the poem came about because I didn’t know how to wrap it up without just piling on more family history flimflam until it occurred to me to just go with a simple list of surnames.
Michael Derrick Hudson’s poems have appeared in Columbia, Georgia Review, Gulf Coast, Iowa Review, North American Review, New Letters, Washington Square, and other journals. He won the River Styx 2009 International Poetry Contest, the Madison Review’s 2009 Phyllis Smart Young Prize, and the 2010 and 2013 New Ohio Review Prize for Poetry. His poem, Ahnentafel is featured in issue 298.2.
Painting by Joachim Lederlin