Space-time: Walking Around in Paula Meehan’s “Death of a Field”

In an elegy for a meadow on the cusp of destruction, Dublin poet Paula Meehan imagines one last amble through its seeding grasses so that, she writes, “I might possess it or it possess me.” Sometimes, though, a person’s sense of mutual belonging gets twisted into spirals through geographical circulation by generations over decades. What relationship to land is possible when no place feels like home?

I first traveled to Ireland during the summer of 2012, in my midforties, two months after my father’s death. As a poet and poetry scholar, I should have gone sooner—Ireland produced an unreasonably high proportion of great twentieth-century verse. Paradoxically, my mother’s upbringing in Liverpool, a short, rough voyage from Dublin across the Irish Sea, made me uneasy about the trip. I have relatives in the British Army and they do not share my devotion to William Butler Yeats. I wondered, as I booked a rental house for my family near Sandymount Strand, whether I’d feel a connection to Ireland or experience myself as an outsider, an invasive species. My mother is paternally Irish-Catholic, maternally German- and Welsh-Protestant, and taught me early about the bitter opposition between those identities (and, often, between her parents).

You may have registered, in that quick genealogy, that my mother is English, but not. She hails from a now-­silted-over port where much of the world once docked and boarded, and she was raised in Toxteth, then a crowded slum without power lines or indoor toilets—not a neighborhood to inspire nostalgia. Her German ancestor, John Henry von Holeban, ran away with a kitchen maid whose name is forgotten, and then ran aground in Liverpool, whiting out his patrician patronym to Weisske and taking work as a ship’s carpenter. Her father’s kin, the Cains, were excommunicated from the Irish Catholic Church during political struggles. By moving to the United States in 1962, my mother continued a rhythm of transatlantic circulation her ancestors began when they apprenticed on whaling ships. She also participated in an unsentimental family tradition of abandoning home turf for a dream of better views.

My father’s side of the family wasn’t much more grounded. His mother’s people, all those handsome blond Carlsons and Johansons, emigrated from Sweden to New York City in the late nineteenth century. Eric Carlson, a repairman, died falling down an elevator shaft—so much for upward mobility—and his only son died at the age of eleven from tuberculosis, but his daughter Esther grew up to marry a lawyer and publish coffee-table books on flower arrangement. Specializing in ikebana, she studied the Japanese language until Parkinson’s immobilized her in a dim upstairs bedroom. Imagine a frail old lady returning home from the city on the Long Island Expressway at dangerously slow speeds and retiring with audiotapes and a snifter of cognac. All those wheels and circles: rubber humming along the asphalt, capstans rotating in the cassette player, the faint chime of crystal knocking against her dentures.

Esther’s husband’s roots in upstate New York seem to plant the Wheelers in the United States the longest of all my relatives, but even their claim is shaky. My paternal grandfather might have been the son of a French-Canadian woman and her first husband—captain of some vessel that plied the St. Lawrence River—and subsequently adopted by the widow’s second husband, a math professor at Syracuse University named William Wheeler. Or my grandfather might be a product of that second marriage. My father couldn’t remember. The French-Canadian captain’s name, he said, was something like le-ponj-e-né. Le Pont something? It doesn’t make sense. L’éponge is French for sponge. It’s all wiped clean.

Dislocation isn’t a phenomenon of twenty-first-century professional life for me. It’s my inheritance. For me “the city” will always be New York, a permanent center of gravity, the ground from which all media emanates. However, aside from adventures of limited duration, I’ve only lived in various United States suburbs, the kind patrolled in the early mornings by giant street-sweeping machines. My family is scattered. I’ve fallen in love with many fields, but I possess none, and none possesses me.