I was going to say something,
and stopped. Her profile against the curtains
was old, and dark like a hunting bird's.
It was the way she perched on the high stool,
staring into herself, with one fist
gripping the side of the barrier around her desk
--or her head held by something, from inside.
And not caring for anything around her
or anyone there by the shelves.
I caught a faint smell, musky and queer.
I may have made some sound--she stopped rocking
and pressed her fist in her lap; then she stood up
and shut down the lid of the desk, and turned the key.
She shoved a small bottle under her aprons
and came toward me, darkening the passageway.
Ancestor. . . among sweet- and fruit-boxes.
Her black heart . . .
Was that a sigh?
--brushing by me in the shadows,
with her heaped aprons, through the red hangings
to the scullery, and down to the back room.
Thomas Kinsella 1973
Two things strike me about this poem; the first is the portrait of the ancestor, and the second is the more universal feeling of grief, mystery, and respect for one's family history. Or perhaps family secrets. I guess that I'm interested in narrative focus right now; how does a poet balance a subject and speaker? "Ancestor" straddles narrator and speaker. Though we get a sense of the woman, we percieve the narrator just as acutely. Then, too, the poem deals with the past. What can we really know about those who came before us? The narrator carefully observes this woman, but says little about her. There are immense gaps in her person; we never learn where she was going or what she was thinking in this scene. With the present narrator's collection of observations and facts about his ancestor, Kinsella explores how humans sort and engage the past.
Kinsella starts this poem with a question for the reader, writing,"I was going to say something / and stopped." Why does the narrator stop, we ask? For me, this halt springs from the uncomfortable conundrum of wanting to know someone's secrets and simultaneously respect her privacy. I think that this is very human - do you know the feeling of intruding on someone's personal moment yet being unable to back out of the room for your fascination, fear that they'll notice you, or curiousity?
For the ancestor is certainly looking inward. She is "staring into herself," "her head held by something, from inside. / And not caring for anything around her / or anyone there by the shelves." The diction here already begins to hint at the ancestor's current state: unbalanced and sad. "Perched" here seems to connote a precarious position, which the anxious image of "one fist / gripping" underlines. She is lost, unkempt, as evidenced by the faint, musky smell coming from her.
This smell also underlines the mystery attached to this ancestor. All the narrator gives us (and perhaps all he sees) are small facts and actions, scattered evidence of her interior monolouge's existence. He, out of respect or ignorance, leaves it untouched, unvoiced. I could list the facts (she carries a bottle, she is a maid, she holds her hand in a fist, she shuts something in a desk), and we could infer that this woman is alcoholic, poor, determined, and secretive. Every little detail has to serve as an window into her being, for we have neither word nor thought from her.
The ellipses in the fourth stanza encapsulate the fine line between respect and ignorance. On one hand, the narrator could be leaving a moment of silence within the poem; the ellipses perhaps provide a pause of respect for the ancestor. However, they also suggest that something is missing, that something is cut or unknown. What are these things? Who is this woman? There is no way to know for sure, though we could make up some story about her illict affair or her dark plot to kill her mistress.
At heart, this is a poem of questions, facts, and how to deal with the past. The narrator looks for any sign about her situation, asking "was that a sigh?" but we never hear the answer. Which brings us to the larger question: how can we ever know the past? Because the narrator's ancestor is so vague, we can never really know what happened, and this seems to be indicative of humans everywhere. Like the ancestor in this poem, perhaps all we have of others are actions and facts. We have to piece people together from the scraps that filter down to us, or the moments frozen in a snapshot, a memory, a dream.