Martha Silano: “When I begin to dig”

[From the WVFC Poetry Archive. First Published March 8, 2020]


When I began to dig

this is what I found: from the Latin, vertere,
to turn, from the Lithuanian, versti, to overturn,

from the Sanskrit, vartate, he turns. Versfers:
turning, turning and bending, having planted

a length of beans or corn, having reached a furrow’s
end. Like a plowman, versing, this breaking up

of sod, this fashioning into tidy rows, helping the singers
recall their lines. When the need to memorize

disappeared, verse remained like the typewriter keys
spelling QWERTY, slowing the typist down. When I began

to dig, I found turnturn backbe turnedconverttransform,
be changed. From wert: to wind, its cognate weard

(turned toward). When I began to dig I unearthed
wyrd (destiny, fate), found what befalls one, reached

down, pulled up Turn! Turn! Turn! A Pete Seeger tune,
a psalm. From Slovenia to Wales, from Greece

to Ireland: turnturnstirladlebecome. This verse,
this versus, likened to conversion, a breather,

a fresh start. Poet, like a plowman in a field
with his furrowed words, looking for a good excuse

to put up his brow, wipe his feet, reward herself
for making it this far. When I dug I found porridge,

bread (barley and rye), lentils, peas, eggs. Not much
meat. Small amount of vegetables and fruit. I found

oats; I found ale. What the digging revealed
was a single word meaning destiny and clean

slate, befalling fate yoked to the notion of free will.
To translate, become someone or something else.

In that plowman’s act, an apparent contradiction
as great as any yin and yang, koan-like conundrum,

that when we don binoculars to study a common
word, English sparrow of the lexicon, we find the link

between poetry and confrontations large and small—
tournaments, showdowns, battles—between a book

of poems, and Sunday’s nail-biting match-up
between the Seahawks and the Panthers. Versus,

a word connecting whatever force, power, or god
handed Marshawn Lynch his strength, his knack

for eluding the tackle, his Shakespearean grace,
and the task of the poet: to bury the weeds;

to disembalm the knotted, entwining roots,
the richest loam. To make, of the oldest question,

a song: are we free or are we not?


First published in the New England Review, 2017, Issue 38.1 and reprinted here with permission of the author.

Listen to the poet reading her poem here.

Here are some links to places on the Web featuring Silano’s recent work: Poetry Daily featureVerse Daily featurePoetry Foundation poems & audio; Waxwing poem from Gravity Assist; Superstition Review poem from Gravity Assist; interview with Kelli Russell Agodon, Tinderboxtwo poems from Gravity Assist at 32 Poems.


Martha Silano is the author of five books of poetry, including Gravity Assist (Saturnalia Books 2019), available for order here; What the Truth Tastes Like (Two Sylvias Press 2015); Reckless Lovely (Saturnalia Books 2014); and The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. She is also coauthor of The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing. Martha’s poems have appeared in Paris Review, Poetry, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, American Poetry Review, New England Review, and North American Review, among others. Awards include the James Hearst Poetry Prize and the Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Poetry. Her work appears in numerous anthologies, including Seriously Funny: Poems About Love, God, War, Art, Sex, Madness, and Everything Else (Kirby and Hamby, eds.), A Face to Meet the Faces: an Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (Paz and Brown, eds.), and The Best American Poetry series, and she has been awarded writing fellowships from the Millay Colony for the Arts, the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and Yaddo. Martha spent much of 2004 living and writing in a remote cabin as that year’s PEN Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident. She currently teaches at Bellevue College in Bellevue, Washington, and serves as a Poet in the Schools through the Skagit Valley Poetry Foundation. Learn more about Martha and her work at marthasilano.net. (Author photo: Langdon Cook)



Poet’s Note

About five years ago, I began work on a collection of poems about language—etymologies, linguistics, rare and extinct languages, etc. While a guest poet at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA Program, I had the lucky experience of sitting in on a class taught by poet, translator, and editor Carolyne Wright. While providing an overview of the history of English verse, she shared that the word verse derives from the Latin versus, “a line or row, of turning from one line to another, as a plowman does.” Talk about a magic moment! While waiting in line for the ferry the next morning, I conducted a bunch more research and completed a first draft. I was lucky enough to be heading off to a scholarly retreat center, where I was able to focus on the poem’s completion.


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