"By all accounts my great-great-great
a thorough-going bastard
or so I’m told"
FitP Poet Highlight 8/82: Michael Collings, “Legacy”
Michael Collings’ longish poem, “Legacy,” breaches the subject of family in a way that neither sentimentalizes the good nor that glosses over the difficult. This is apparent in the first lines in which the poet says, “By all accounts my great-great-great / was / a thorough-going bastard / or so I’m told” (lines 1-4). With this, he draws readers into the conflicted relationship between generations, a connection, at times, that can only be passed on by word of mouth, with the idiosyncratic, biased inflections of the voices that must speak to pass family knowledge between the “great-great-great[s]” and newer generations, between the dead and the living.
Apparently, the poet is “told,” this “bastard” relative abused spouse and child, was an “Obsessive-compulsive on a power trip / / Bigot” (13-4) who ranged “from Kentucky to / Kansas” (8-9) trying “to procreate new generations of bastards” (7). And when he settles down, he builds a house that his great-great-great grandchildren inherit, digging its foundations with his own hands, his sweat mingling with the “black earth / in the basement” (28-9), a metaphor for the other aspects of his life he may have passed on with the house: his abusive tendencies, his obsessive compulsions, his bigotry; also his industry, his passion, his sacrifice.
And yet, the poet seems to understand that these tendencies don’t necessarily have to take root in the new generation; this man’s progenitors don’t have to follow in his steps. They can remodel the house they were given; they can get rid of chunks of the property; they can forge new lives, though these lives will always be grounded (as the poet acknowledges in his final lines) in the lives that have come before.
And such is the blessing and the curse, I suppose, of human legacy.