Sundress Reads: Review of Genealogy Lesson for the Laity

In her debut collection, Genealogy Lesson for the Laity (Unsolicited Press, 2020), Cathryn Shea traces her ancestry from the Portuguese islands of the Azores to the shores of Provincetown and Providence to the landscape of Northern California, where four generations of her family have put down roots. Lineage forms the narrative thread of these dreamlike poems, chronicling Shea’s memories of her parents and grandparents as well as her own evolving role as a mother and grandmother. Through communion with the past, Shea examines how the legacy of her genealogy manifests throughout her daily life, guiding her interactions with relatives, friends, lovers and everyday existence. For all those who have searched for answers in their family history, her poems blur the boundaries between decades, recording the passing of traditions from one generation to the next. 

Shea’s vivid language captures the role of precious objects in the canon of family history, transmitting memories down the matrilineal line. In “Star Death,” she describes her great-aunt’s “legendary / five-carat, cushion-cut rock / set in Art Deco platinum, said to be / from her heavenly spouse.” In “Great-Great-Grandmother’s Green Skirts,” she recalls “The green-gowned girl bound for California, / teal feathers sewn to her collar, / irises iridescent as prisms.” These family treasures are the physical relics of forgotten memories, prisms that capture the hopes and dreams of Shea’s ancestors. The vibrant, living language of these poems is grounded both in her lineage and the sense of renewal found in the natural world. In the title poem, the speaker recounts “The genome of my aunt is in the family… I buried my key to her house / in the skirts of the weeping willow. / Spring nailed its velvet wrist / to my outstretched arm.”

Elsewhere, Shea draws on the more conceptual tradition of naming to explore the duplicity of her grandfather’s government-assigned surname, which both erases his ancestral identity and links her family to the thousands of other immigrants from the Azores who settled in America. In “Enos is Not the Real Family Name,” Shea is walking in Provincetown when she notices the Portuguese name “Enos” written on local mailboxes, leading her to recall her grandfather’s anger at the erasure of his family’s original name—Oliveira—at Ellis Island: “My grandfather blamed the government / for indifference to immigrants, / their family origins and traditions. / The customs officers assigned Enos / to multitudes of Azores Portuguese.” Despite a loss of individual identity, their shared name leads Shea to feel a sense of solidarity with the strangers in Provincetown’s Portuguese community. By comparing the forgotten histories of her ancestors with the shared experience and stories of other Portuguese immigrants, she reflects “I must steal from other stories, other Enos histories / and merge the made-up with the supposed facts, / which I can never know.”

Many of these poems take place in the liminal space of hospitals, waiting for a dreaded diagnosis. In “Editing What the Doctors Keep Saying,” Shea reflects on the failure of language to address the uncertainty of illness: “Will we both be gone when the mutations are known?… / the trials, the cures, medical glossaries swirling over my head, / language I don’t understand, no relief in the cryptic words of the prognosis.” This play on words refers to both the editing of genes, the genetic mutations that result in health problems, and how the selective editing of words can help us cope with the truth. Similarly, Shea examines the role that genetics and matrilineal lineage plays in our perception of disease in “The Short Straw”: “When my best friend drew the straw / of ovarian cancer she blamed herself / for taking hormone replacements, / blamed her mother’s genes.” The discovery that no genetic mutation is to blame results in a meditation on the randomness of the universe, a prescient moment of clarity that resists any sentimental attempts to instill a false sense of meaning in her friend’s suffering. Other poems examine the connection between womanhood and the cycle of life, such as a tender, striking poem about generational attitudes toward breastfeeding that spans five generations, from Shea’s grandmother to the poet’s young grandson.

Shea’s exploration of genealogy extends to the natural landscape of California, where the lush and vivid setting forms her impressions of family history. A resident of Fairfax, Shea is a fourth-generation Northern Californian, which manifests in an abiding love for the Golden State. Her poems leap between vivid locations, from deserts to canyons and waterfalls. In “Oakland,” Shea chronicles the unique role the city plays a catalyst for major events in her past: “My father got stationed at Coast Guard Island, fell in love / with my mother at a dance in Oakland. / The earthquake wiped out my grandmother’s girlhood street / when the freeway collapsed in Oakland… There’s no there there—I was slow to realize / Gertrude Stein was talking about Oakland.” Shea later specifies the famous event she refers to: the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, when a large portion of a multi-lane freeway known as the Cypress Street Viaduct collapsed. Deeply embedded in the local landscape and history, these poems are sparkling recollections of another place and time.

Throughout this bold and electrifying collection, Shea weaves an intricate web of history, ancestry and memory, the strands that make up an individual life. By transcending the limits of time to call upon the influence of her ancestors, she examines the way we are all intertwined. Genealogy Lesson for the Laity reminds us of the resonant significance of the ghosts of our past, a haunting meditation on the role family history plays in shaping every aspect of our lives.

Genealogy Lesson for the Laity is available at Unsolicited Press

Eliza Browning is a student at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where she studies English and art history. Her work has previously appeared in Rust + Moth, Vagabond City Lit, Contrary Magazine, and Up the Staircase Quarterly, among others. She is a poetry editor for EX/POST Magazine and reads poetry for COUNTERCLOCK Journal.

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