by Roger Nash
We eat food from fields we did not clear.
Piled rocks look like unopened
letters, undelivered in the dry grass.
Then we moisten and exchange bodies on a strange
bed. The carved headboard twines us
together, in an unknown, varnished hand.
Afterwards, back on the street, the clouds
are, as usual, illegible, the drains unsigned.
We do not return to places we left.
A stranger sips coffee attentively there,
though the walls can't recall our names.
But we remember to be thankful, constantly, that everything
important began with us. The shade
we sit in so romantically automatically throws
up the side of a shed, a broken rake
rotting beside it. We are our own heritage.
As leaves burn brown in the surprising
air of spring, may we be consistent
enough to forget to hand it on.
Questions & Answers
What inspired "Heritage"?
We live in an age of unprecedented social and technological change. Our biggest challenge is to hold on to the best values and practices of the past, and bring them into our ever-changing future. This is a difficult balancing-act, and the danger is that the excitement (or pressure) of change can distort or dislodge our understanding of the past. Sometimes we may not even realize this, because we tend to re-imagine the past by assuming it was whatever was needed to bring about what we are comfortable with, or used to, in our present. Then it becomes more and more difficult to shape a benevolent and sustainable future by learning from mistakes (and successes) in an adequately remembered past. This challenge is all around us everyday, and important to think about in the language of poetry.
What poetic techniques did you use in "Heritage"?
The poem moves through a number of poetic techniques to reflect on its theme. The shift from one technique to another, in a relatively short poem, is a kind of parellelism with the rate of change in our world.
The poem contains a number of aphorisms: condensed statements of serious general truths. Take "We eat food from fields we did not clear." This kick-starts reflection on the unsustainability of a consumer society that forgets to match consumption with the hard and creative work of sustainable production.
There are some surrealistic images, dream-like, even hallucinatory in nature. Piled rocks look like unopened and undelivered letters: the lessons of past farming practice are not read by us. There's a kind of irony in using surrealistic images on the theme of learning from the past. Surrealism sought to break from the constraints of tradition and convention, and celebrated hopes of radically distancing ourselves from the past. But this poem pleads for balance and caution in such celebration.
There is irony (shaping an explicit meaning that differs sharply from, even opposes, the implicit meaning) elsewhere in the poem, too. So, "we remember to be thankful, constantly, that everything/important began with us." But everything can't have begun with us, even though we sometimes behave as though it did; and this can't be genuine remembering; and this unqualified attitude is not one to be thankful for.
There's a subject-object reversal in the shade casting up the side of a rotting shed. This goes with the idea that we so often don't build what we enjoy, or do much to maintain it. Our life-style is often, naively and over-romantically, at odds with normal causality, and assumes its reversal.
Paradox (as well as irony) comes in with "We are our own heritage." In their everyday meanings, this combination of words makes no sense. But if we modulate meaning in terms of the belief that everything began with us, then what we can inherit from the past shrivels to the sharpened pencil-point of what we are now in our ever-shifting present.
And, of course, metaphor is at the heart of poetic language. Take the physical union of two people who are unable to draw on, and develop in their own unique way, the heritage of love-stories from the past. The poem pictures this as strangely impersonal and anonymous. They are twined together with the artificiality, anonymity and distance from their familiar selves, of a couple who meet only beneath the factory-produced carved headboards of strange beds.
More poems by Roger Nash:
- Farming On Water
- Poem of Probabilities
- Summer Solstice
- The Village of the Blind (India)
- This is my Mother's Camera
"Heritage" originally appeared in Canadian Literature #137: Female Subjects & Male Plots (Summer 1993)
MLA: Nash, Roger. CanLit Poets: "Heritage" by Roger Nash. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 13 Nov. 2008. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.