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Archive for May 18th, 2011

Many Native American cultures – Iroquois, Oneida, others – express the sacredness of earth and family in this guiding principle: make your decisions according to how they will affect the seventh generation. The idea of planning for seven generations has been adopted by ecologically minded groups from California to Vermont. Engineers, builders, civic planners – “7 generations” appears in their name or their mission statement.

Why seven? Besides being a number with plenty of mystical portent, there’s a practical matter to it. With a good memory, reasonable longevity, and a little luck you yourself have a good chance of knowing personally seven generations of your family. Linda had a long and close relationship with her great-grandmother, who lived into her nineties. In fact I met Great-Grandma White several times when Linda and I were dating (along with a houseful of about fifty cousins, aunts, uncles, and greats, all of whose names I had been carefully coached to memorize – and folks, this wasn’t the rural South, this was the Rust Belt). And if Linda and I live to ninety our grandson Saul will be 35, surely old enough to have had a couple of great-grandkids for us. Add it up – seven generations.

Extended family. Reaaaally extended. It does make you want to think a little more critically about where you place your priorities. Saul, I’ve already planned to bequeath you my best binoculars, solid enough to stand the test of generations, a legacy I hope. May you see things with them that I’ve only imagined.

Imagining. Seeing. It happens when I read this poem Conversations on the Leaving by Marty Silverthorne. I find myself smack dab in the middle of the generations. It’s one thing to experience a poetic image that brings a vivid scene to your mind, but it’s quite another to find yourself in the room, in the conversation, stammering to add your own voice to the dialogue. So poignant, so immediate – I wish I were kin to Marty. Maybe after reading his poetry I sort of am.

The poem is from his book No Welfare, No Pension Plan (2006, Rank Stranger Press, Mt. Olive, NC). The entire collection is exquisitely personal – much of it is an elegy for grandmother, grandfather, father. The language embodies the rough life of the farm and the pride despite poverty of Eastern NC; the language rises with gut-felt power like a revival preacher; the language sings mournful like nightbird and swamp. Great Granddaddy Fred was water, / fluid and free. / In his palms, seeds sprouted; / sap seeped from his pores. (from Water Walker). There are smells and sounds and dog-tired feelings here that we don’t want to lose. We can’t stand to lose them. We can’t afford to. They need to be recalled to the seventh generation.

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Conversation on the Leaving

He was speaking of the leavings;
his voice broke in a rhyme,
poverty, poems he had witnessed.

They didn’t leave much – trinkets
mainly trinkets – nothing of value;
you knew their poverty, son.

So I didn’t get much.

Did you get the green elephant?

Yeah, I got the elephant.

Wasn’t it a stencil to draw by,
with a thumb tack for an eye,
wasn’t it a stencil?

No, it was a napkin holder,
a broken napkin holder
she pinned above the plate rack
with a white thumb tack.

Oh a napkin holder! I never knew.

They didn’t leave much – trinkets
just trinkets – old odd things –
that mean nothing to no one, son.

Did you get the horse heads,
the wooden horse heads,
brown, wooden horse heads
nailed above the headboard in the bedroom?

They were dogs.

They were dogs?
I never knew they were dogs.

Yeah, they were dogs.
Cut’m in woodshop
with a coping saw
I’ve still got.

Like I said, I didn’t get much —
trinkets I saved
they were going to throw away.

Your brothers won’t want much;
they don’t remember the oak floors
covered with linoleum
or the day we framed the new cabinets.

Dad, did you remember the church
how about the church;
not the Eiffel Tower but the church?
remember the church? It was broken;
the children broke the church.

Son, I didn’t get much;
they didn’t have a lot to leave
but the church, I got the church,
the family was forged in the church.

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Four Poems by Marty Silverthorne

Feature at NC Arts Council

Asheville Poetry Review

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