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Poem of the Week: Material Culture by David C Ward


The American historian and poet personifies a family heirloom, and wonders about the secrets that the mid-18th-century walnut Chippendale desk hints at but refuses to divulge

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.

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