(for Jefferson Nicholson)
Backwards: how to walk it
is the question. It involves paper, microfilm, and
old stories. Names are Gospel,
passed from lips to ears. Footprints stay put when
Blood. How to divine it,
borrow Joseph’s Egyptian cup to find you. Walk backwards
through a chain of men: Dad, Grandpa, Great-grandpa Thomas,
and back to you: Jefferson, the first of our line
in this land. Named for a president that you shared no blood, tongue, or
coasts with. The Book of Nicholson, chapter one, verse one,
with a hole in the parchment where ink should be. I want to
walk through my veins to find you.
I know that somewhere, there is
a mountain range of ash. It is made out of
piles of powder from spent joss sticks. They are
lying in testament to your absent picture: maybe it
broke apart somewhere in North Carolina, and I will find
bits of its celluloid scattered in the dirt of Warren County. I don’t know
where your old plantation is. Maybe I should find it,
sneak past a guardian fence, and ask the trees. Maybe I should
find the tree that holds your breath in its trunk, those
buried anthologies in its rings. The bark can hold you,
but it cannot hide you for long. It will give you up to me,
decadent and green,
wearing someone else’s last name,
the child of ship and chains.
And somewhere within your renamed chest, there is
a drumbeat heart. I can hear it. It is like my own. It is
borrowed Congo, reassembled Gold and Ivory Coasts. It has
a name. But I cannot yet divine it. Not past
slavery, not past foreign tongues and forgotten names. But I will
learn how to walk backwards,
through paper and film,
through blood the color of diasporas, stolen land,
and one-drop rules. To find you, I will learn how to walk backwards
© 2010 Nicole Nicholson. All Rights Reserved.
This poem was written for Read Write Poem Prompt #119: Let’s Get It On. I decided to go a little less sensual and a bit more literal…and backwards.
Some background notes: Jefferson Nicholson is the earliest of my father’s ancestors that we’ve found in the Americas. To our knowledge, he was one of many slaves owned by the Nicholson family on a large plantation in Warren County, North Carolina. We don’t know if he came over on a boat or was born here; what we do know is that he was born around 1794 and died around 1898. So I went backwards to him for this prompt.
An aside: from what I know of the last name itself, Nicholson is a derivative of the Scottish surname, MacNieceal, which means (no surprise here) “son of Nichol/Nicholas”. I’ve seen quite a few Irish families with this name too.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the poem (and if you’re family, feel free to comment here too).