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Preservation of language, love, and integrity with poetry from Beverly Greenspan, William Greenway, and Mac Greene.
6 minutes


We’re a couple days past St. Patrick’s Day, but there’s still celebratory green everywhere. We’re going to celebrate green, too, with three poems by people with “green” in their names.

Beverly Greenspan said that this poem was inspired by a Writer’s Almanac entry for January 21, 2020. She said that that date marks the death in 2008 of the last native speaker of the Eyak language; that was the language of a tribe of indigenous people in Alaska. Here’s Beverly’s poem “Into a Silence.”

The seals still jabber
and the orca whistles with its pod
in the exuberant waters
but the words are forgotten
that shaped the sense of sinew and wind,
of shell and snow, of drums and mystery
among the speakers of Eyak
since Marie Smith Jones,
who was the last whose native tongue it was,
died in 2008, even those names
the common coinage of another language.
But into that silence
among the sea otters and the salmon,
the stones under ice, and the new inarticulate roar
of engines, came a student from a French school
who had taught himself from DVDs
to be the only one
to speak the lost language fluently.
At 21 he traveled to Alaska, trying
to teach those who were speaking to each other
without those words, astonishing them
with his passion for what was abandoned, astonishing
the summer sun and winter darkness
the whales and the birds of the sea,
as if a shell
full of the absence of what lived in it
echoed against his ear, as he set sail,
his tongue navigating the wash of sound
through which they were once known.

Beverly Greenspan’s poem “Into a Silence” from Passager’s 2020 Poetry Contest issue. Beverly said she started trying to write poetry at age 6, and at age 72, she’s still trying.

William Greenway said that his poem “Second Mortgage” “came from my anxiety about buying a house for me and my new bride, who is 33 years younger than I. Gulp.”

So far we’ve had only two fights:
when she scrambled eggs with a steak knife
in my nonstick fry pan,
and when she put my cured, cast-iron,
cornbread skillet in the dishwasher.
But hell, when I was twenty-nine
I didn’t know nothing either.
Dumber than a bag of hammers, I
had to be raised by another woman,
who taught me not to wear brown
shirts with brown pants,
like some UPS driver,
where and what the clitoris was,
that the food in New Orleans beat
Atlanta’s all to hell,
that car loans and credit cards
are of the devil,
and that when you move into a new house
the rugs you lay on the floors
still have the sweepings underneath.

Now, this new woman is teaching me too:
to think twice before I utter my
and my “you-might-oughtas,”
to say nothing that doesn’t have
the shade-tree shadow of love
above or beside it, and to keep
my hot-headed, oven-door mouth
shut, likewise the screen door of humility,
which welcomes the cooling breezes in
but keeps the flies of friction out.

From Passager Issue 50, William Greenway’s “Second Mortgage.”

Passager published Mac Greene’s poem “Walmart Killed My Granny” in its 2017 poetry contest issue. He said it’s a true story, told by one of the main character’s grandsons. He said his own grandma and great grandma added additional details. Here’s part of that poem.

Green tennis balls shushed across the floor.
The walker creaked and clicked.
She paused to breathe and find her balance.
Past the greeter and check-out lanes,
shush, click, pause,
past Easter candy, little girls’ flowery dresses,
past cleaning supplies and dairy.

They had called and said the little rocking chair was in,
special-ordered with MICHAEL carved across the back.
Little Mikey was about to be four
and he loved Granny’s porch rocker.
She smiled,
seeing them together on those long slow evenings in July,
rocking while the mourning doves hoot in the pines.

. . . Granny dragged the box with that special-order chair,
shush, click, pause.
She dragged it past hardware, automotive, and electronics.
Her house dress started feeling warm and sticky with sweat.
Her hand cramped up in gardening.
The box nearly tipped her into the Easter lilies.
She dragged it through the pharmacy.
When she stopped to rest, a boy and a girl
with safety pins in their ears said they would
carry it over to her truck.

That night Granny was feeling poorly.
The next afternoon her heart quit.
Mikey kept asking, When’s she coming back?
Jeremy sobbed. Aunt Ellie wanted to sue,
but we said Granny wouldn’t ever put blame like that.

An excerpt from Mac Greene’s poem “Walmart Killed My Granny.”

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For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne, and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr.