By Lelia Ferro.
I am currently working on two very different but connected poems about family heritage.
Although I was born and raised in England, both my parents were born in Genoa, Italy. I grew up near to London, and lived and worked in London and Brighton. The transition to Wivenhoe 10 years ago wasn’t easy and for a long time I felt like a fish out of water. However Genoa, like Essex, has a great maritime history and so in this respect I felt that we were connected by the sea in our blood. Colchester was also of course home to the Romans for quite some time.
At the University I have found a home with great diversity where I am by no means the only person who is from here, there, and everywhere. I believe that having a mixed heritage is a very interesting gift creatively, although it has taken me a long time to recognise this. I identify with both my countries, but at the same time I can be an observant stranger in both. It is this outsider position and feelings of uncertainty that lead to questioning ideas and perspectives.
My first poem is about my late father-in-law, Peter, who was someone completely rooted in Colchester, although he later retired to Scotland. I am interested in writing about him because in many ways his life is a bit of local social history. He was born in 1929 and lived through the Second World War, in a very military area. Peter’s beautiful and stately mother, Minnie, was of local gypsy descent, just like Mehalah in Sabine Baring Gould’s chilling story about the Mersea salt marshes. His father was a local scrap merchant who was unfit to fight in the war. Peter had a wide network of friends who always helped each other out which I capture in my poem:
From Walton to London, your friends
linked with winks along old smuggler routes.
The Essex coast was for generations very much a working man’s space. As places like Wivenhoe become increasingly gentrified, I feel that it is important to remember this. Peter’s Essex was very busy and sociable compared to the desolate images of the Essex coast so often portrayed now. Looking back at old photos I see a great number of carnivals, expeditions, and pageants, taking place in Colchester and all along the coast.
While I was working on the poem about Peter, I began to wonder if I could articulate my own complicated heritage in a similar way. My poem Heritage begins like this:
Once a year we make our journey
where people I don’t know kiss me.
I listen quietly in fragrant kitchens,
unfold like spring leaves.
I go on to describe in short stanzas the fragmented family stories which I heard over and over in the homes of my relatives. These stories have left a great impression on me and are part of the identity I carry around each day. The photograph below is of my paternal grandmother and grandfather. Although I was not alive when this photo was taken, when I piece everything I know together, I can almost stand there right with them.
I hope that my thoughts on heritage have inspired you too. It is the fluidity of the human imprint on the landscape which makes it so interesting. Places, people, and identities, are transient and shift with each generation. It is important that we preserve them.