Critics note that in the Homeric narrative, Ulysses’ original mariners are dead. A significant irony therefore develops from Ulysses’ speech to his sailors—”Come, my friends, / ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world” (56–57). Since Dante’s Ulisse has already undertaken this voyage and recounts it in the Inferno, Ulysses’ entire monologue can be envisioned as his recollection while situated in Hell. —Wikipedia
Everyone has a song. Upon hearing it, we declare our possession with pride, recite the lyrics like a religious mantra and exchange knowing looks with those for whom our song is our song. We cobble together a soundtrack of identity, connecting our inner lives to a moment in time, our culture, our history and the human spirit itself.
Few people have poems. “No one actually reads poetry anymore.” When my undergraduate Classical Studies professor made this dubious assertion, several of us came over our desks at him in protest. We read poetry. We were not no one. He grinned like the Cheshire Cat and uttered his trademark guffaw. “You read poetry?” We eagerly awaited his praise. “You are not normal.” After class, he accepted our invitation to serve as Master of our residential college and presided over years of bacchanalia and poetry readings.
I knew I wasn’t normal. My family wasn’t normal. From my first days, my mother read me poetry from an anthology originally owned by my grandfather. Given its fragile condition, I surmise it was the same book from which he had read to my mother. My grandmother was not well educated but made up for it with an aesthetic sensibility so refined it’s impossible to believe she was born into a family of sharecroppers. My grandfather was the intellectual, though most likely an autodidact. He made my mother memorize poems, learn Greek myths, read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, practice the works of classical composers (for which she was rewarded a collection of small marble busts) and study art history – all before the age of 14. She in turn sought to cultivate her own children. We had Longfellow and Keats instead of picture books and cartoons.
My mother grew up in a small town in Southern Illinois. I know little about my grandfather, whose origins are shrouded in mystery. There is a photo of him taken at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The rest is apocryphal. After a stint as a Prohibition bootlegger, he oversaw the local ammunition factory during WWII. There he hired the first African American foreman, causing some controversy to which he responded by inviting said foreman’s family to dine at his home. He bought the first television set in town and invited neighbors over to watch boxing matches. He drank, had mistresses, forbade the children from crying and impaled my mother’s seat at the dining room table with a knife. For her posture. The pistol-size cubbyhole mounted under the dining room table was not apocryphal; my brother and I used it in our childhood games. My grandfather was elected to City Hall and active in the Civil Rights movement. After his death in 1963, my mother was so distraught she was sent to live with “family” halfway across the country in New York. In Hell’s Kitchen. I have no relatives in New York.
Decades later, my grandmother would schlep us around her small town, introducing us as “Mr. Ladd’s grandchildren.” Old women fawned in adoration. It felt surreal to me that they’d known him but I never would. They’d say something about “everything he did for our fine city” which was a small town and not a city and ask us with intrigue if we knew that he had ridden in the very same car as President Kennedy? We knew. And did we know what an honor that was? Yes, we understood. Our grandfather had been involved in John F. Kennedy’s campaign. A framed letter from Jacqueline Kennedy, expressing condolences and gratitude to our family after the death of my grandfather, hung in my grandmother’s bedroom. You’d have thought my grandfather and John F. Kennedy were best pals. It was a small town.
The early death of my mother and inevitable passing of my grandmother dissolved any connection I had to that town. My grandfather’s mystique dissolved as well when, propelled by rabble-rousing idealism and a desire to be part of something greater than myself, I found politics as an adult. Of course a popular Irish Democrat who made his name as a bootlegger and held elected office in a key state had chipped in for Kennedy. He’d met the candidate? I’ve met Barack Obama. Millions have. Professional etiquette dictates one acknowledge the death of a donor or delegate. It was most certainly a form letter with a stamped signature hanging on that wall. My foray into politics tarnished the cachet of my grandfather’s life. But something more meaningful replaced it.
“I know it’s silly and I know everyone hates what I do, but in some way I feel a connection to grandpa. I think he’d be proud of me,” I confessed to my brother. “We’re not a political family, Toscha. We’re a mafia family,” my brother replied, as if this were a more honorable option. “Same thing,” I joked.
We aren’t a mafia family. My mother never invited her Hell’s Kitchen “family” to visit us back home. My grandfather has been dead for over half a century. My stepfather’s grandfather was sent back to Sicily in the old days, but that scandal predates even my grandfather’s death. We’re not a political family either. We’re not any kind of family at all really. Too many of us are dead. Too many of the rest only call when they’re in trouble, have had too much to drink, both, or another has died. That’s not a family. That’s hell.
Yet our patriarch’s presence looms over our lives like God looms over the faithful. We’ve never seen him, but we revere him and trust that he loves us unconditionally. It’s not unusual that he’s mentioned in conversation with my brother, and on this occasion it was in the context of my job. We were hosting the son of Robert F. Kennedy. “Bobby,” my mother had called him, like he was some sweet boy who lived right down the street. “Jay-Effing-Kay’s nephew,” I exaggeratedly impressed upon my brother, to which he replied in an affected old lady voice, “Did you know that your grandfather rode in the same car with President Kennedy?” We howled in unison with laughter. “Well, that’s cool.” I was anything but.
When Kennedy entered the pub, he strode right up to me. The man running the event swiftly grabbed him by the arm and walked him toward a group of retirees. I have no internal censor (likely the reason he was yanked from my presence) and yelled in Kennedy’s direction, “I have to talk to you!” Before taking the podium, he removed my purse from the chair at my side, sat down, leaned over, focused his blue eyes on mine and introduced himself. I viscerally registered that oh so this is the Kennedy thing happening now wow ok while he waited for me to express my position on Medicare for All or something. I leaned forward. “What I am about to say is obnoxious and presumptuous and you’ve heard it your whole life and it’s going to bore the hell out of you and I apologize for that, but I have to do this ok?” and I told him about my grandpa and everything his family had meant to mine. He endured it with grace. Before I could embarrass myself further, I changed the subject to the Cape, about which he was more eager to swoon. The man running the event saved me: “Hey Kennedy don’t you have like a speech to give or something?”
A friend took an empty seat across from mine and nodded accusatorily. “What?” “It’s true about the Kennedy men and pretty girls.” I clarified that I’d been doing the chasing and, despite the absence of a knife in my chair, sat up straight. After the meeting, I stayed to drink and talk shop. “What he said about Trump being the product of an uneducated electorate is true,” I said, gulping a martini. “You can’t say that in a stump speech!” a political advisor objected. “Well someone has to. Education isn’t just about jobs. It’s about creating an informed citizenry. No, not just informed – people are being bombarded with information – but capable of filtering and synthesizing all that information, otherwise voters will act from a position of fear, because that’s what ignorance breeds. Fear. Education opens minds, cultivates empathy, connects us to history and the whole fucking human condition. You need that stuff when making decisions that impact the lives of strangers.” I should have given the stump speech. “Why didn’t he mention his family?” someone asked. “Yeah. That was weird. I mean, he’s a real Kennedy,” another chimed in. “Right? I wanted him to talk about his dad. Like whoa what was that like?” yet another exclaimed animatedly. I shuddered.
The Kennedys aren’t normal either. Americans who would never read a celebrity gossip mag or watch TMZ will discuss with abandon the most gruesome and personal details of this family’s private lives and tragic deaths. They may be an actual family and are most certainly a political one, but our morbid curiosity about them must be its own kind of hell. I was surprised that these cynical political operatives wanted the juicy bits. This is Chicago. We do real politics, not Arthurian legends. Sure, I have a magnet of JFK on a boat and let people assume it is “ironic.” But we don’t want to live in a world where we are judged by our refrigerator art. Judge us instead by our poems.
I have poems. Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” Walt Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” But seemingly from the beginning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”
“Ulysses” is a well-known poem, referenced in everything from Frasier to the James Bond franchise. It’s so popular I wince to admit it is my poem. It’s like declaring “Imagine” your song. It’s a good song. And a Miss America pageant answer. I don’t know how it came to be my poem. It is in the Bedford Introduction to Literature I purchased for high school AP English. Marginalia suggests I wrote a class paper on it. In college I posted To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought along with a photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and specimens of ironic and erotic art on the door of my Northwestern dormroom. When a long-term relationship collapsed in my 30’s, I wrote Come, my friends, ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows on a large scrap of paper and taped it to a wall while listening to Cher. Less publicly but no less ostentatiously, in private moments of success or defeat, I’ve opened the AP English book, its spine having broken at the poem after decades of use, and read aloud, hardly glancing at the pages but gripping them for dear life, tears streaming down my cheeks and the tip of my nose as I reach the crescendo, Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
A few days after the meeting, I went to the library to pick up a book on jazz. Becoming a jazz aficionado was my New Year’s resolution; it seemed more achievable than eradicating fascism. While there, I scanned the shelves for the new Hillary Clinton book and found a series of Kennedy bios instead. “Like whoa what was that like?” echoed in my head. No. Don’t. Using the excuse that I’d promised my stepfather to read more history, I randomly clutched a Kennedy bio and scurried off. Feeling self-conscious, I grabbed one about Peggy Guggenheim too so the woman at the circulation desk would just think I was really into biographies. I got home and skimmed the Kennedy book. The political history I mostly already knew. The private lives were none of my business. But the motif of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” stopped me in my path.
My poem was their poem.
I’ve never given thought to how it became mine. I just assumed it came to me as poems do: by serendipity or comparative literature courses. I was now confronted with the possibility that I’d inherited it along with the apocryphal stories and literary tendencies of my grandfather. Or worse, I heard it on TV. We weren’t a family who spent evenings in front of the boob tube, but we did eat our dinners with C-Span on in the other room. I was a child when Ted Kennedy gave his famous “The Dream Shall Never Die” speech, which like those of his brothers, borrowed from “Ulysses.” But I was a precocious child. I remember trying to divine the sadness and anger that fell upon our household when Reagan was elected. That I may be less a discriminating consumer of classical literature than an indiscriminate consumer of political rhetoric haunted me. As did the fact that this realization followed the arc of my conversion from librarian to politico. It was too tidy. Too poetic.
Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone so bold as to believe their ambition nothing less than heroic, should be drawn to this story of Ulysses. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone born to a romantic, thrill-seeking, stubborn brood, should be drawn to this tale of doomed but glamorous adventure. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone who refuses to hang up their sword after enduring unknowable loss, should be drawn to this ode to perseverance. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone whose family history is as much legend as truth, should be drawn to this humanizing of the mythic. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone immersed the terrible world of politics, should know the value of pure oratorical gold. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone who has a poem, should have “Ulysses.”
Of course, I may very well have discovered the poem in AP English. Let us not discount the power of formal education, not after my moving speech at the pub! I may owe this debt of gratitude to Mrs. Votoupal at Marquette Catholic High School. Or I may owe it to Ted Kennedy. Or I may owe it to my grandfather. I will never know. And as it was for Ulysses, the unknowable is hell.