Into and out of Dislocation

Into and out of Dislocation

by Giscombe, C.S. Giscombe

A thought-provoking meditation on the connections between landscape, race, and family.

It was on his third or fourth trip there that the poet C. S. Giscombe grew aware of the space Canada had staked out in his imagination. Giscombe later spent a winter with his family in British Columbia, and his time there provides a lens through which he interrogates his

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A thought-provoking meditation on the connections between landscape, race, and family.

It was on his third or fourth trip there that the poet C. S. Giscombe grew aware of the space Canada had staked out in his imagination. Giscombe later spent a winter with his family in British Columbia, and his time there provides a lens through which he interrogates his preoccupation with Canada's otherness. Giscombe writes that "border crossings are always sexy. And racial." And so this book is filled with both actual and metaphoric exploration -- his travels serve as points of departure for a series of riffs on racial, national, physical, and psychological borders.

At the heart of this book is the author's ambivalent pursuit of John Robert Giscome, a man who may or may not be a relative. John R., as Giscombe calls him, was a black Jamaican explorer who flourished in British Columbia during the last half of the nineteenth century. Giscombe documents the places that John R. passed through, and he uncovers stories about mining, pioneer life, and even cannibalism. Giscombe likes to imagine John R. as a "self-aware outsider," and that symbolic status comes to seem more important -- and more interesting -- than any historical truth.

Into and Out of Dislocation is an intriguing and wryly told travel memoir by a writer Henry Louis Gates called a "major figure in contemporary African American letters."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a book part travelogue, part memoir, poet Giscombe embarks on a quest to plumb the mystery of America's vast northern neighbor, Canada, while researching the legend of John Robert Giscombe, the noted black Jamaican pioneer who crisscrossed the region during the last half of the 19th century, and who may or may not be related to the author. With his wife and daughter in tow, Giscombe goes on a winter sojourn into British Columbia, dogging the explorer's trail and pondering his own evolution from a crisis-filled childhood to a more emotionally stable African-American manhood. Giscombe's evocation of Canada, during both John's time and the present, is deeply affecting; he renders its people, history and culture with remarkable clarity and detail. He finds newspaper accounts of John's exploits and accomplishments, and retraces his steps through old mining towns, pioneer settlements and historic wilderness sites. An avid reader and film buff, Giscombe also presents an eclectic list of books and movies that have shaped his own view of the world as he has confronted racial prejudices and his handicap of a missing arm. Despite occasional spots where it becomes chaotic and unsettling, his stream-of-consciousness style provides many reflective gems, especially on the issues of race and culture. What makes this book such a substantial achievement is not so much Giscombe's confused start-stop search for his predecessor's essence, but his probing of our human ability to adapt to and endure the sometimes monumental challenges of otherness. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Kirkus Reviews
In his debut work of nonfiction, poet and academic Giscombe (English/Penn. State Univ.) searches for a possible 19th-century ancestor, a Jamaican miner and explorer whose surname, Giscombe, has become `affixed to the geography` of British Columbia. Giscombe divides his memoir into numerous sections, but one serves as the principal string threading the beads of the myriad memories and musings that comprise this remarkable, moving work. These `Winter in Fort George` sections (Giscombe distributes more than half-a-dozen of them throughout) provide the closest thing to a traditional narrative structure, but even they sometimes wander off into unknown or unexpected territory—just as Giscombe himself is apt to do as he pursues by foot, bicycle, car, train, and airplane his ancestors and his interests, from Jamaica to British Columbia to Cornell to Illinois and Alaska. He writes that he endeavors `to live at some extremity, at places where my mortality might be visible to me.` Giscombe's search for his obscure ancestor—for the reasons that a town, a rapids, a canyon bear his name—fuels an explosion of words and ideas that traditional organization cannot hope to contain. He moves effortlessly through time, back and forth and back again—each crafted sentence a wave that brings to shore a dazzling bounty of beauty and surprise. Such an array of subjects! From films by Chaplin to jazz by Miles Davis to bears, crocodiles, nighthawks, wolves, and foxes; from Chinese food in remote restaurants to family, race, sex (`Eros is eros, boys, everybody gets to play the fool`), pain, loss, the fraternity of cyclists, the inability of undergraduates to write essays, and meditationsonthe frailty of his own body (that `portable old site of my being alive`). As he considers the `tribes` that are our families, he concludes that each has `a lot of centers, a lot of stories, a lot of homeplaces and hearts.` Masterful and mesmerizing; informative, rich, wise, and wonderful.

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Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
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5.87(w) x 8.57(h) x 1.21(d)

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Chapter One

Three Locations

Grande Prairie, Alberta

Sometimes when I'm driving up Veterans Parkway, the boulevard that traces the eastern and southern edges of my city, Bloomington, Illinois, if the light's right or close to right, I'll suddenly remember Grande Prairie, Alberta, where I spent a night at the beginning of the summer of 1995. I'm never startled, really, to recall Grande Prairie at those times—the road into that town had made me think of Bloomington when we arrived there dirty and tired after several days on the various northern highways—and I like remembering the place, Grande Prairie, and will tease the memory, once it's arrived on its own, and pretend between the banks of stoplights that it's Alberta I'm crossing instead of downstate Illinois and that I'm heading for the Peace River instead of Kinko's copies or the Schnucks superstore; or that I'm driving out to Fort Dunvegan or Fort St. John instead of off to teach my afternoon class at Illinois State University.

    I was with my wife and our nine-year-old daughter. We'd been in northern Alberta for two days and I'd been surprised to discover how flat that part of the province was. I didn't know Alberta well (and still don't): before this trip, I'd only crossed it by train once, thirteen years earlier, and all I'd recalled of the province from that trip was the railroad track snaking through the incredible snowy mountains west of Calgary—Katharine and I had sat up at the top of the carpeted stairs in the coach's observation dome for hours staring into the infinity of white peaks.And here were planted fields, the look of agribusiness, a landscape that should have been familiar to me because of Illinois. But until we came into the little city, Grande Prairie, it hadn't felt like Illinois—the light we were encountering in the country was different from the light I was used to cutting through on the drive to Peoria or the drive to Champaign: there was a hazy quality to it, probably owing something to the forest fires that year, but that quality was disconcerting because I could see a great long way through the haze, out to where the horizon did blur into the sky. The surface of the earth there in Alberta seemed to be dishy, slightly concave in its flatness way into the distances, and the light seemed to exist not as a series of gradual, far-off wanings but as an ever-present, if less distinctly visible, entity. It seemed to be pooling in the fields.

    We'd driven into Alberta—from Fort St. John, British Columbia—through that and come eventually to the Peace River at Dunvegan, where the landscape changed; we went down into the forested hills that rose above the water and camped in a provincial park. We spent the next day, which was cloudy, in some small towns along the Peace River and along the Smoky. Katharine was constructing a photo-essay about our travels along these rivers, and this low grey day was a challenge, she said, because of the kind of film she had in the camera. She photographed the Smoky from the spindly girder bridge at Watino and the Peace from the five-car ferry on which we crossed it for a third time—the first had been on the peculiar, curving span at Fort Dunvegan itself and the second was the long bridge that led into Peace River, Alberta, the town named for the water. Then we got over to Rycroft, where the rain started, and followed the straight road to Grande Prairie, dropping into town from the north.

    At the eastern edge of Bloomington, Veterans is the long artery of upscale commerce. The east side's the most profoundly white side of town and there Veterans Parkway is garlanded with frontage roads and has a grassy median strip and "smart" traffic signals that allow you to turn onto the access roads for the malls or for one of the McDonald's or appallingly ridiculous Jumer's Chateau, the huge restaurant, hotel built according to a fantasy of stuccoed Europe. Beyond Veterans the "good" suburbs are extending—town marches farther east into the cornfields and soybean fields each year—and the boulevard's swath is a rough boundary between, the older upper-middle-class neighborhoods (giant maples, straight streets, Prairie-style houses with recent additions) and the stark, newly built homes of surgeons and people in the insurance business (Bloomington's the corporate headquarters for State Farm), these in neighborhoods with names like Harbour Pointe. Unlike other urban boundaries the parkway doesn't separate discrete socioeconomic communities—its several lanes separate only styles. The sky, though, seems to well up above Veterans more than it wells up at any other place in Bloomington. Hardly anything is tall on the horizon and perhaps because of that the sky is simply most visible there, from along Veterans, from one's automobile—during the afternoons, the light and clouds are incredible, nearly static presences, towering in fat vertical contrast to the divided lines of traffic. But the location of the light is different there: it's specific and diverting and profoundly a thing. Yet even so, Veterans Parkway looks like a lot of places I can think of, effortlessly, in the East and Midwest—Far Hills Avenue in Dayton, Ohio, for example, or Erie Boulevard in Syracuse, Adlai E. Stevenson Drive in Springfield, Illinois, Central Avenue between Albany, N.Y., and Schenectady, etc. Some days I remember Grande Prairie but usually, if I'm thinking about location at all as I drive up Veterans, I think about how I could be at the edge of anywhere.

    And because of that I had been surprised—as Katharine and Madeline and I came into Grande Prairie that evening in June—to be reminded so strongly of Bloomington's strip; it had rained, as I mentioned, earlier in the afternoon, but that had stopped and the day had cleared and the air was bright and free of haze and here we were coming into an unexpectedly big town with a lot of traffic lights, restaurants, and motels. The sky was a presence. We were grubby—we'd camped the night before, as I said, at old Fort Dunvegan on its wild little hill above the Peace and we'd spent the night before that camping in the Rockies, in prosaically named Summit Pass, in B.C. The previous evening we'd tented at Mighty Moe's Campground in the Cassiar Mountains near McDame Creek; that was one of the nights during this trip that it never quite got dark—twilight had lasted and lasted and swelled outside the tent. The air had seemed to become increasingly granular but it never really got dark.

    We were actually making a long, wide circle—a two-week car and ferry trip—and Grande Prairie was the last stop before we arrived back at the starting point, Prince George, British Columbia, where we'd been renting a house near the Nechako River. Prince George is in the geographical center of the province, it's the place where the north-south highway and the north-south railroad cross the ones going east and west. The Nechako flows into the big Fraser River at Prince George; the confluence is visible from Cottonwood Park downtown. It's a hub, a lumber and railroad town, the only city of any note for several hundred miles in any direction. I had a Fulbright that year and this was where I needed to be—I'd wanted to figure out some ways to document the travels in northern British Columbia of the Jamaican miner John Robert Giscome. He'd flourished there, as they say, in the latter half of the nineteenth century and he was, perhaps, a relative of my—and Madeline's—ancestors. He'd arrived in Prince George in the November of 1862, when it was Fort George, a Hudson's Bay Company outpost; he was on his first prospecting trip north from Quesnel, the village seventy miles south of Fort George where he'd been living, and he was accompanied by Henry McDame, a man from the Bahamas. They were headed for the Peace River country, where there was supposed to be a great quantity of gold, but the ice on the Fraser River stopped them and they hunkered down for the winter in Fort George. He was thirty-one years old then, I don't know how old McDame would have been.

    We'd arrived in Prince George in the winter too, or partway through it, in January, and were due to go back to the States at the end of June, so this would be our last trip out of town before that. Madeline was missing a little chunk of third grade but her teacher had agreed with us that this would be a worthwhile experience for her and that she could learn to multiply by seven later. It had been a pretty good jaunt—we'd taken the Yellowhead Highway west to the Pacific at Prince Rupert and caught the ferry from there up past Ketchikan and Wrangell and Juneau to Skagway, Alaska. From Skagway we'd made a detour to Whitehorse, the nearest city, the capital of the Yukon Territory, because Katharine was sick and needed a doctor and maybe was going to need a hospital. But it turned out all right and we were able to get back on the road after a couple of days in a motel and drive down into the Cassiar and through the Rockies and so forth. The Cassiar and the Rockies and the Peace River and Wrangell, Alaska, were important to the project because they were places John Robert Giscome had got to; Grande Prairie was not—it was a convenient juncture for us to clean up in and relax in for the last evening before the last day of travel, before we'd drive over Pine Pass and come down the Hart Highway back into Prince George. (And then we'd start packing up to really go home, to return to Bloomington.) Grande Prairie was on the flats, as its name suggests, on a high dry plateau devoid of the sorts of undulations that rivers provide, and John R. had gotten everywhere he went by water.

    After the ice broke up on the Fraser in the April of 1863 Giscome and McDame had set out for the Peace River goldfields on the roundabout way that was standard then—eighteen miles on the winding Fraser north to the Salmon's mouth and then northwest for twenty-some miles up the Salmon to a short, marshy portage to what's now called Summit Lake. From there they were going to descend the Crooked River to McLeod Lake and the Parsnip River and eventually get to the Peace. But when they arrived at the place where the Salmon River flows into the Fraser they found the Salmon high and dangerous and their guide—a local man, an Indian—suggested that they go a little farther up the Fraser and take a short path he knew to a lake from which they'd be able to reach McLeod by canoe. That was in April. Much later, around Christmas, John R. would be down in Victoria talking about all this to the British Colonist, the newspaper there. The long front-page article, "Interesting from the Rocky Mountains," in the December 15 issue is the main source for my knowledge about his trip; it's the main print source for what I can begin to know—or guess, really—about him. The paper notes that he and McDame "made a portage of about nine miles to a lake, leaving the canoes behind," and at that lake they picked up another canoe—"from an old Indian Chief"—and came down the Crooked River (as it's called now), getting eventually to McLeod Lake. There were no towns then, of course, only those forts dotting the landscape, sitting on the shores of lakes and rivers. At the fort at McLeod Lake "a salute of about 20 shots was fired, with firearms, in honor of the arrival of that party through that route which had never been traversed by any others than Indians." The route that Giscome and McDame had used—that "portage of about nine miles"—was a more dependable route to the north than the standard, one not subject to the vagaries of high water; by 1871 the path was known as the Giscome Portage and it appeared prominently on maps until the age of highways began after the First World War, at which point travel past the new city, Prince George (built at the townsite adjacent to old Fort George), began to stop meaning travel via lakes and rivers. Up until that point it was the way. That first lake that the partners came to after the portage, Summit Lake, is the beginning of the Arctic watershed; the Fraser flows south and enters the Pacific at Roberts Bank in Vancouver, but Summit Lake drains into the Crooked and the Crooked flows north into other rivers and lakes and, eventually, all that water gets to the Arctic Ocean. According to the Colonist story, John R. noted, as he and McDame left Summit Lake, that they were in a north-flowing river—he must have known he'd crossed the divide. The two of them did eventually make it to the Peace on their 1863 trip but found little there in the way of gold and, after some adventures, moved on to other sites in B.C. where they fared better.

    Now, there's something black people, or American black people of certain generations, say: we say that no matter where you go, no matter how far, no matter to what unlikely extreme, no matter what country, continent, ice floe, or island you land on, you will find someone else black already there. (In Fairview, Alberta, when I went into the 7-Eleven to ask where we might camp in the vicinity it was a big chocolate-colored man in blue overalls who said that he'd just driven his truck over from Fort Dunvegan, where there was a provincial park, and that we could be there in twenty minutes.) And maybe white people do something similar but on a grander scale, make a similar claim but one so unironically tied to civic identity and national consciousness as to be invisible, as to require no particular thought or self-consciousness: the local case in point is that most histories—casual and published—of B.C. start by mentioning the same fact, the same luminous detail, they all start off with Alexander Mackenzie being the first white man to enter what is now the province. The story is not indicative of some vicious racism on the part of its tellers but its presentation as a flat fact reveals the tendency that we all have to go along with things, to not question the conventional. When John R. and Henry McDame strolled into Fort McLeod, the Hudson's Bay Company lads there at the fort fired off those shots in their honor, or in what John R. reported as honor, "in honor of the arrival of that party" over that trail "which had never been traversed by any others than Indians." I imagine that when people read that description in the newspaper they assumed that our heroes were two white guys; and I imagine John R. smiling as he or the newspaper reporter, or the two of them together, came up with that phrase, "any others than Indians." I imagine him smiling; I don't know if he did. Who was the first black man to enter B.C.? Who was the first Giscome and how did he or she spell the name?

    And all my life I've been struck by how the world's staked out by names—that the path between the Pacific and Arctic watersheds became the Giscome Portage, that's the thing that brought me to Fort George a hundred and thirty-three years after John R. had wintered there. Of course, the name's a spelling variation of my own family name, Giscombe, and all the handful of Giscomes and Giscombes I'd ever met or heard of up to the point of my own arrival at Fort George had been, as I am, black Jamaicans (by birth or by ancestry); Giscome or Giscombe is not the sort of name that one associates easily with the Arctic, with ice and snow. And British Columbia is a land of white people (who've written the place's history, starting that book with A. Mackenzie), Chinese people, and Indians—that's the standard racial breakdown in the province and white history in B.C. is an even more recent series of events than it is elsewhere in North America; "pioneer" appears with great frequency in the names of businesses and organizations in the province and various other white firsts (after Mackenzie's) are casually mentioned in most conversations about the landscape. Photographs abound of the early days of the province—history is close by. But into that history, from the Bahamas and Jamaica, come Henry McDame and John Robert Giscome. They came into Fort George that winter and the latter's black name got affixed to the geography around there: the portage wasn't the only thing named for him—there's also a town, thirty miles out from Prince George, and a canyon and a rapids, both on the Fraser, and a spate of other designations as well. And into that history—and into the land of ice and snow—came I and my little family; it wasn't the first time we'd come to Prince George but it was the first time we'd arrived to dig in.

Prattville, Jamaica, West Indies

I finally went to Jamaica for the first time in the spring of 1996, after we'd been back from Prince George for almost a year. I went there rather specifically to interview John Aaron Giscombe, Jr., who was ninety-three years old then and who is the great-nephew of John Robert Giscome. He lives just outside of Prattville, a tiny place which is itself in the hills above Mandeville, a big market town in the center of the island. These hills are no region of Giscombe family origins, they're where his wife's people were from. All the Giscombes trace back to the parishes of the northeast coast, the northern side of the Blue Mountains: Buff Bay—where my grandfather was born—, Belcarres, Portland Parish, etc., places I've still never seen. Or that I've not seen yet. I suspect there's a blood connection in all that geography, a link that's out there waiting to be found between my grandfather's people and that family, John R.'s. Or I imagine that there is; names rise in a number of different ways and if we do share some ancestry—if the same coupling long ago produced both John Robert Giscome and myself—I've certainly not discovered it, marked it, located it; I've been concerned, so far anyway, more with the peripheries than with a core.

    And John R. is himself, in Canadian history, a peripheral character—that is, he appears, or his name does, in a variety of contexts, but almost never as the central focus. The articles and descriptions and paragraphs are rarely about him—they're about the countryside or the route through it that bears his name or about the business ventures of a white man for whom he's reputed to have worked once. There are a couple of exceptions to this, though—one is that long article in the Colonist, "Interesting from the Rocky Mountains," and the other is a videotape, made in summer 1994, at a Giscombe family reunion in Melbourne, Florida. The tape contains an extensive interview with old John Aaron and it was sent to me a year or so after the fact by Lorel Morrison, who lives in Maryland and is himself one of John Aaron's great-nephews: there's a relatively tight family group descended, it turns out, from John R.'s brother Peter, who stayed in Jamaica while John R. went on to Canada, and Lorel's part of that group. I don't know whether or not I am: there's a coincidence of some first names but they're fairly common first names and there are enough holes and guesses in the family trees to make me dubious or at least cautious and qualifying in my embrace. But on the tape the old man was sure about some things—he called the names of people long dead and told stories about John R. and Peter, who was, of course, his own grandfather.

    My grandfather, for whom I am named, left Buff Bay suddenly one afternoon near the turn of the century and never went back: the story goes that one of his brothers was shipping out on a United Fruit boat to Costa Rica and that he—my grandfather—had gone down to the docks to see the brother off and decided or had decided (impulsively, that is, or by design) to join him. He picked bananas for a while in Costa Rica and saved money and came to the United States and went to Clark, the black school in Atlanta, and then on to Meharry Medical College in Nashville. He settled in Birmingham, where my father was born, and practiced medicine there until the week before he died in 1962, when I was eleven. He was a short man with coppery skin and high cheekbones, he was fierce and calm at once in his demeanor; he had an accent, of course, and I can remember the sound of that much more vividly than I can recall anything he ever said. He said rather little. When he died we all went down to Birmingham on the overnight train (from Dayton, Ohio, where I grew up and where my parents still live) and I played with the neighborhood boys while my father closed up his office. Small mysteries were discovered among the papers—nothing scandalous but things he'd never mentioned: a medal and an accompanying citation for his work with the Selective Service signed by Harry Truman, a handful of stock certificates from shady-sounding oil ventures, and a 1921 letter from the Provincial Board of Medical Examiners telling him what he'd have to do in order to practice medicine in British Columbia.

    Years later, when I found out about John R., I immediately thought of that letter—it's now ensconced in a little cardboard envelope in my top desk drawer here in Bloomington. I suppose I don't really know what to do with it on any level: it's an artifact all right but I'm not sure what it represents, I do see that it's no dotted line on a map connecting my grandfather's fortysome years in Birmingham to John Robert Giscome's fortysome years in B.C. I don't know what was in my grandfather's mind when he wrote to the medical examiners and I don't know what set of circumstances stopped him from going out there. Like much else in the family history it's locked up in the head of someone who's died. Papers don't reveal much, I think, for most of us, especially when it comes to our desires—we're not scrupulous about maintaining a trail that would reveal us, we're more busy getting through life than documenting it. At the funeral my grandfather was laid out in his tuxedo and my mother whispered to me that he had last worn that at her wedding to my father, fourteen years earlier. He'd been entertaining them, she said, during the reception and, because I'd never before heard the word used in that context, I imagined him fiercely doing magic tricks. I knew where British Columbia was when I was a child because I was interested in maps.

    I didn't know a thing about John Robert Giscome, though, until I was thirty—I was an editor then, at Epoch magazine at Cornell University, and I was publishing work by a Vancouver poet, George Bowering. In one of his letters he included something odd: he circled my name on the line of salutation and scrawled a question across the top of the sheet—"Do you know that there's a town in northern B.C. that has this name?" I didn't know but when I went home that evening there it was in the world atlas I'd had since I was thirteen—a black dot on the map outside Prince George, on the red line of the Canadian National Railways. The name itself, Giscome, was in the sans serif typeface Rand McNally uses to indicate very small towns; the index listed the population at 575. A patient little time bomb, in my possession, waiting to go off. I typed a note of inquiry to the Chamber of Commerce in Prince George and got a letter back that quoted 1001 British Columbia Place Names, the guidebook by G.P.V. and Helen B. Akrigg: "Named for John Robert Giscome, a negro miner who entered the district in 1860 and died about 1910 in Victoria." This was something real. The next afternoon I went over to the Olin Library at Cornell and took the elevator up to the sixth floor and found a copy of the Akriggs' book and read the one-line description again. I looked out the window at Inlet Valley and West Hill—it was winter and the line of the hill was jagged against the sky. The Olin ventilation made its constant whoosh and the dry, sweet stink of leather bindings drifted in the air. Here was something real indeed and eventually, because of that, I made it out to British Columbia. But I've always, all my life, been going on into Canada, going up to Canada, over into Canada.

    When Katharine, Madeline, and I got to Jamaica we rented a car, a Toyota Tercel, and drove the hundred miles from Kingston out to Mandeville. The ride was harrowing—people went fast and passed one another on curves and on hills and I was, of course, unused to driving on the left side. We got through Spanish Town, Old Harbour, and May Pen and, as the country began to get steep and the traffic got less intense, we stopped for lunch at a roadhouse called the Healthy Eaters Café. The place was full of truck drivers, African-descended and Indian men, who spoke, as we waited in line to place our orders, in an accent that stopped me from understanding whatever they were telling me; but I was finally able, after some false starts, to joke with the women at the counter about the price of Pepsi-Cola. One brought our lunches out to us in the dark little dining room and my barbecued chicken was quite delicious. We came into Mandeville a little after that and found our hotel, and the next morning I got up early and went off alone, with my new tape recorder, to see John Aaron Giscombe in Prattville.

    Lorel Morrison had provided me with directions to John Aaron's house and the hotel owner's husband augmented those by drawing me a very detailed map of the way out of Mandeville. With all that on the seat beside me I headed up over the shoulders of the edge of town, passed some big estates, and suddenly town all fell away and I was on a narrow road that looped through a lush, open country. I felt a certain ebullience at driving alone through this, through Jamaica, in the morning—the road was deserted and on either side were hills that were thick and a brilliant green color and the sunlight too was thick without being either hazy or bright. This was certainly the country of joy, of resonance—but with what? The road was beautiful but it reminded me of many other trips on many other roads—one memory yielded effortlessly to another, the road was that basic in its climbs and in the way it went into the sunlight. All was a scattering, nothing cohered. And in that scattering, or rolling alongside it, I was headed for an almost arbitrary location, a place where I hoped to find some information, a crossroads, as it were, at which I was to meet an emissary from something bigger, something more specific—it was the classic literary situation, almost a cliché. But this landscape was specific too, this was Jamaica—the land of my fathers—and I was on my way through it to Prattville in a rented white Tercel.

    After a while Newport, where I was to turn, hove into view: it was an intersection with some two-story buildings and a police station, and I found my left turn in a grove of big trees and made that and went on toward the hills in which Prattville was situated. Trees shaded the way for the first quarter mile or so, and I saluted an ancient man with a cane who was walking in the road there, tottery on his bare feet, and he returned my wave shakily with his free hand. The skin was profoundly black, the beard and hair were bright white. Actually, many people were walking in the road and there were goats too, and cows, and a plague of white egrets—all of our driving thus far in Jamaica had involved an unnerving proximity to people and animals. Lorel had asked, in one of our phone conversations, if I'd ever traveled in the Third World, fretting over me a little bit, I think, on the eve of my departure for the island of his birth, and I'd answered, half-joking, that I had been to New York. And England—where we'd lived for half a year when Madeline was a baby—had outfitted me with a series of handy comparisons: as I climbed toward Prattville I became mindful of the road I'd bicycled on over the Malvern Hills near the Welsh border—like that road it ascended and descended very sharply (much more so than the one I'd taken from Mandeville down into Newport), plunging into and out of some deep shade, and it was often gravel and there were the "washed-out interrupted raw places" too that Theodore Roethke named in his great last poem, in the section that begins "In the long journey out of the self ..."

    But all that's metaphor—literary bric-a-brac—and metaphor's heavy on any road. All around me Jamaica roiled in the sunlight and jutted out onto the pavement and seemed a lot like itself. My comment about New York was merely clever and England hadn't really prepared me—this was the land of some of my fathers and it was at least as strange to me as England had been when I'd arrived there.

    Lorel's instructions had called for me to begin asking, at some point, for the way to Mr. Giscombe's house. At what felt like the outskirts of Prattville I stopped two men who were walking by and asked them and the bald man said that he lived up in Nonperel, up at the top of a hill, and asked, "You he grandson?" I'd noticed, once we left Kingston, how dark-complected almost everyone was and because of that, I think, I stuck out some—I've never thought of myself as being particularly light but in comparison to the people I ran into in the country I was. I am. Old John Aaron—whom I'd seen in the videotape—has skin roughly the same color as my own and I suppose that this was enough to base the question on. A young man named Martin appeared and one of the men I'd been speaking with arranged for him to act as guide. We drove up the potholed hill to Nonperel, which was a group of houses in among some trees; I steered around a young one-armed woman in a sleeveless blouse who was walking with children—hers?—, carrying a gallon jug of milk, and Martin pointed out Mr. Giscombe's driveway and accepted the couple of dollars I offered for his trouble. I parked at the bottom of the hill and climbed up to the house, where I was met by Noel Giscombe, John Aaron's son. I'd written and so was expected.

    The old man came out of the back room then and I introduced myself to him, using my first name—Cecil—and my last name, which was, of course, the same as his. "I knew a Cecil Giscombe," he said but I couldn't get him to elaborate. He rambled for a long time, repeating, word for word, snippets of his talk on the tape Lorel had sent me. I'd try to guide him, but everything about John R. came back to him having "found a gold mine in Canada" and that, when he died, "his property was worth twenty-five t'ousand dollars"—he'd emphasize the "t'ousand" the same way each time, just as I'd heard him emphasize it when he told the story on the videotape, and finally his son said, "Forget it, man," and went on to say I should have been there last year; he'd been sharp then, Noel said, and could've told me everything I wanted to know. But during the intervening winter he'd fallen sick and Noel and his other sons had thought he was going to die; he hadn't, of course, but he'd emerged from the illness frail and disoriented. "His mind's gone, man," Noel said; "you're about a year too late." The old man sat on the couch next to me staring out the open window. The tops of trees were visible and from somewhere else in the house music was playing. There was a picture of Queen Elizabeth on the wall. I get tangled up in language myself sometimes and often will remember things I've said or should have said and repeat them later, turning them over again and again in my mind. I teach in a largely windowless building named after the Bloomingtonian Adlai Stevenson and have identified a malaise I call Adlai Stevenson's disease, the first sign of which is talking to yourself in the stall in the fourth-floor washroom, the one English shares with Accounting and Philosophy. It's a joke ailment of course, garden-variety depression crossed with the fear of Alzheimer's. The question on the road had been whether or not I was a grandson, but I was forty-five then, about the same age as Noel. What'll I be like in half a century? The videotape had been made at a family reunion in Florida and the old man had been casually encyclopedic about the tribe—the range of skin colors, his father's experiences in Panama, his own adventures when he'd lived in Chicago. Some of those adventures had had a sexual tinge and John Aaron had flirted, a little, on the tape with some of his young, distant cousins, trim good-looking Giscombe women in their fifties and sixties.

    I've never been terribly interested in the costume drama that most imaginations of the past seem to entail. Which is to say that I regard devotion to family trees with a mix of suspicion and uninterest—there's something irritatingly civic about the enterprise, something that verges on a kind of boosterism. One wishes to find and then capture the connection as though it were a trophy. It'll settle this or that, it'll confer status. I recently met a white man in Indiana who made a point of telling me that he'd traced his lineage back to Abraham. When I do think of the past and family trees and so forth I imagine copulation—the romance of sex, the inevitability of bodies producing another body, the grandparent suddenly youthful and randy. The delights of being naked. Or I imagine the ancestor wasting time doing this or that or being sullen or fearful or, as Auden said, just walking dully along. Eating. Working for someone. Asleep. Or waiting for something to happen.

    I came back to Mandeville, picked up Katharine and Madeline, and we drove down to Treasure Beach on the south coast and went swimming in the Caribbean. It was March and the water was warm. We sat on the sand and watched pelicans, birds none of us had ever seen before except in pictures.

Bloomington, Illinois

Above the Schnucks parking lot in Bloomington nighthawks are a presence in the spring. Schnucks is the biggest supermarket in town and its lot has the best arc lights of any of the lots in town and the birds come because of those, in pursuit of insects. Their wings jiggle, light catches on their bellies, the calls are high-pitched and piercing as they swoop. I found a dead one recently, when I was bicycling outside of town, at a country intersection, and it was cause to stop and take a close look. They're not really hawks, of course, they're goatsuckers; the name sounds vampirish and oddly sexual in other ways as well—it comes from the astounding width of their open mouths, big enough, the notion goes, to fit around a goat's teat. The beaks are very small, though, in terms of length. I leaned over the handlebars and poked it with my foot: it was perfect, as we say of dead creatures, it had probably been struck glancingly and died of shock—even dead it looked sleek and capable. I'd never seen a nighthawk close up before.

    A mile south of our house on Vale Street is the edge of town and I'll often make for that when I'm out for a quick before-dinner bike ride; town stops, at least for right now, at a little subindustrial copse—something having to do with Olin Corporation, Stahly's Truck City, Owen Nursery—bordering the Norfolk Southern tracks and there's a twelve-mile loop I do that commences just beyond that: it follows a relatively hilly road along the railroad, skirts the edge of a freestanding subdivision that's popped up beyond town, and crosses I-74 twice. In the fields outside Bloomington live thirteen-lined ground squirrels—handsome rodents, they have a bad time with cars—, moles, voles, the inevitable raccoons and woodchucks. Pheasants, a couple of varieties of owls, kestrels, redtail hawks, casual flocks of pigeons. Nighthawks. "An enormous added dimension is given a country by its game," said Edward Hoagland in his book about B.C. Deer occur in the little clumps of woods around Lake Bloomington and some of the other man-made lakes. I recently saw a bald eagle above the Illinois River at Peoria and I've encountered four coyotes in the last few years. Once I saw a fox run across the parking lot of the Super 8 Motel.

    I said something in a poem once about "all locations being temporary" and, later in the same long poem, that they—locations—are "emphatic and come to know one place," counting on the reader to hear "know" as both itself and "no." Locations are provisional: we're in Bloomington because of my job with the university but there's no origin for us here—or anything that might remind us of any place of origin, this is not anyplace that one might aim at or make for deliberately—and no resonance in the shape of the countryside past town which stretches unambiguously to the horizons and is owned by a corporation. But locations are where you happen to get to and then, as the joke goes, there you are.

    I went to British Columbia to see and live in the remote, unlikely place that the family, people with this Jamaican name, arrived at. Being in British Columbia—living there—was like going along a ridge, like being on a path that follows the top of the ridge for a long time and offers a view of myriad this and that below. It was like having gained the ridge, as they say. (When I went back to Prince George, in June of 1996, I climbed up Teapot Mountain with Vivien Lougheed and John Harris and Barry McKinnon; when we got to the top we were able to see a great distance into the west—valleys, the plume of smoke from a lumber mill, two or three lakes, and a town. Nothing terribly exciting except for the conjunction and the fact of distance. And the presence of height, or the presence of a change in height, in elevation, someplace to see from. Still, it's pretty much what I'd expected to have a view of, those valleys and that town and some water. But my metaphors come, if sometimes too easily, from that sort of thing, there being geographic sites on the earth. And on the body—the recollection of this erotic adventure, that injury, that little surgery. Old places where the hair doesn't grow.)

    Grande Prairie was not a special place, it was a coincidence of light that makes our approach to it stick in my memory. Or it was the prescience that came along with the light—soon it was going to be time to go back. Once we'd got to the motel and lugged our stuff into the room we began arguing about something stupid: there was only one towel in the bathroom and Katharine and I went around and around about who was going to call the front desk to ask for more so we could all shower before going out for dinner. I can't recall now which one of us finally made the call, and though we both apologized and chalked our behavior up to travel fatigue, the argument had soured my mood some and dinner didn't make it better. We ate at a Greek restaurant downtown—it had a nice tile decor and the sun slanted in through its big windows but the food was unmemorable—and wandered back to the motel. I was feeling a slow sad irritation that I now think had more to do with the end of our life in British Columbia becoming visible to me than it did with being tired and having carried on about towels. We'd be eating soon at one of the chain restaurants on Veterans—Chili's or Applebee's or the Olive Garden. Katharine agreed to take Madeline to the swimming pool and I went out to try to walk off my unhappiness in whatever was behind the strip of motels and eateries.

    The road went across the CN tracks and up a little hill: there was a newly built school on the right-hand side but to the left was a wide expanse of bushes and trees and a paved footpath leading off into them. I thought again of Bloomington: we have a series of connected walking and cycling paths that, together, are called the Constitution Trail; the trail's situated on the old railroad beds that wind through town and one leg of it traverses an interesting little undeveloped area by Veterans Parkway—it follows the curves of a creek with low, scruffy sides in between Jumer's Chateau and Pier One Imports. Someone said recently, in a letter to The Pantagraph, the Bloomington paper, that she'd seen otters there but I suspect she really saw a muskrat. Whatever she saw, it's one of my favorite places in Bloomington. But this was Grande Prairie—or an edge of Grande Prairie—and I followed the path off into the trees and bushes, and ten or so minutes later I was surprised to arrive at a body of water. A sign told me it was Crystal Lake.

    A dock stuck out from a marshy corner of the lake and, as I walked out onto it, I saw the whole place was alive with birds. I've never been so close to more shorebirds, or more different kinds of shorebirds, at once than I was at that long moment when I stood out at the end of that dock. A pair of ruddy ducks did a courtship display and a tern divebombed me so repeatedly that I had to take several steps back—I suppose the bird's nest was nearby. I saw scoters and great numbers of Bonaparte's gulls. A muskrat swam nearby and female redwings with nesting materials in their mouths clung to reeds just as they do in Peterson's. It was a brilliant, noisy place and I stood there and watched and listened for half an hour. I don't know if the lake was natural or man-made, I don't know how often people visit it, whether it was a feeding site or not. It was a place where I wanted to surrender, a place I'd come to unexpectedly, an uncomplicated center. I was still in my funk but I'd seen birds. They won't save you but they're beautiful and necessary.

    Finally I turned away from that, turned to go back to the motel down the path I'd come up on, and I realized, once I'd regained the bushes, that the light had changed a little; it wasn't dark or even near dark but the light had shifted. Dark was coming—"black like me," Langston Hughes said—, it was going to get dark. I walked on, thinking about the birds and the muskrat and about this place, and suddenly I knew, there on the path, that I wasn't quite sure where I was. I mean I knew I was on the path back to the road back to the motel, but I didn't know what the country right here was. It touched me the way understandings do in the dreams that are not nightmares but that have an interesting, menacing edge to them, that entangle the dreamer, me, in a slow cognizance not of danger but of the fact of danger probably existing, somewhere that I the dreamer can't quite see. I mean I suddenly realized that in the bushes beyond the path there might very possibly be bears.

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What People are saying about this

Ishmael Reed
Giscombe addresses issues that have drawn the attention of African-American writers since the beginning of the tradition, but he does so with original insights. He has expanded the universe to which readers of African-American writing have become accustomed and by doing so reveals the agony as well as the beauty of African-American life in this hemisphere in new ways.
Robert Creeley
An impressive book indeed. In it the author tracks the echoes of an historical figure who might, it seems, lead finally to himself. At the same time real life goes on, which proves an equal part of this profoundly engaging story.

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