Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Poem of the Week: Material Culture by David C Ward

David C Ward
‘Wood stands mute’ … Poet and historian David C Ward. Photograph: Smithsonian
Material Culture
Wood breathes in but gives us nothing back
For all the years since someone made it into
Something else: a shape, a form, a purposed
Work of art that a family – in this case mine –
Bought and kept since it was made some time
In the 1750s north of Boston. Danvers or Salem
Craftsmen, anonymous skilful men,
Took burled walnut, fit it to the tongue and groove
Of customary pattern, added brass fittings,
Set it out to catch the eye.
A slant front Chippendale, a desk just luxe enough
To signify a rising man but serious for the work at hand:
Merchant, lawyer, office holder. It’s not known who
Bought it first. Family legend pridefully maintains
General Israel Putnam – ‘Old Put’ – who fought
With Washington, owned it once. A faded paper
Says so, so perhaps. But if its genealogy is intact
Albeit inexact, I want to know what it absorbed
In my family’s travels from there and then to here and now:
Wood stands mute, breathing nothing back.

Contemporary poems, like contemporary people, often seek out imaginative conduits from “there and then to here and now,” as David C Ward’s poem puts it. Poets or not, we all enjoy turning things found in attics or museums into foundation myths of ourselves as individuals, families, nations. A few years ago, BBC Radio 4 ran a compelling series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, where emblems of many “material cultures” formed an electrifying narrative. The programmes, which paradoxically made terrific radio, had a thrilling, almost reverential atmosphere, suggesting our once overriding human interest in relating the “here and now” to the “hereafter” might have been replaced by a more 

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