A Stirring Poetic Journey into the Heart of Belonging

“When tilling roots,/ slow, go further down. Listen/ for pre-lingual signals.”
—Beth Kope, “Root Bound,” from Atlas of Roots

Some of us have life histories we take for granted. We see the roots of our ancestors reaching deep into history and lineages that link the past to the present. We know who we are. Poet and adoptee Beth Kope, in her heartfelt engagement with ancestry titled Atlas of Roots, goes in search of her family origins and encounters questions and blind alleys, document redactions and refusals. Not to be deterred, she engages with these poetically, stoically, tenderly, angrily, from both her childhood and adult perspectives, probing the corners of identity and belonging with feats of imagination and self-interrogation. In “The Veil” she writes,

When I wear it
I am field
wrapped in snow
that shrouds my geography.

When I wear it
I am lake
with early morning mist
rising in clouds of bafflement.

I hold the veil
frayed and threadbare,
pin it to my cheeks.
And I am hidden.

I encountered this lyricism throughout the book, and it’s this tone and Kope’s thwarted desire for connection with her birth parents, especially her mother, that ultimately broke my heart as I read this collection.

But Atlas of Roots explores Kope’s origins using several registers, from lyrical, to philosophical to clinical. In addition to her own voice, she adds the voices of other adoptees telling the story of their own journeys to connect with birth family—including her own adopted brother and sister—some successful, others disappointing. I ached, raged and sorrowed along with Kope as her quest unfolded, following her efforts to map out her personal geography, and in a way, heal herself in the process. Ultimately, her origins on paper remain veiled from scrutiny. What remains, however, is a visceral sense of those parental presences, especially the mother’s. Here, words from “Speculative Fiction”:

In another world,
I am still your child.

We share language codes.
Follow familial lines of migration.

You’ve woven chants
through my hair since babyhood

and lines of salt current
hold us close.

The roots remain hidden, but they are there. As Kope puts it in “Root Bound”:

Cells intuit
more than written history.

While it may be true that “shadows flinch past the fence” in this unresolved search, Kope herself never flinches from exploring her family line and pursuing the truth to the last unturned stone. Atlas of Roots is an emotional, beautiful and poetically complex work that reaches down to the very bone.

—Barbara Black, author of Music from a Strange Planet
Photo: Kevin Young

Click here to order Atlas of Roots.

Atlas of Roots