By: Robert Levine
In its Ideas section, the May 31, 2009 issue of the Boston Globe published an essay by novelist Alain de Botton entitled “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Data-Entry Supervisor.” Botton laments that
many contemporary writers are notably silent about a key area of our lives: our work. If a proverbial alien landed on earth and tried to figure out what human beings did with their time simply on the evidence of the literature sections of a typical bookstore, he or she would come away thinking that we devote ourselves almost exclusively to leading complex relationships, squabbling with our parents, and occasionally murdering people. What is too often missing is what we really get up to outside of catching up on sleep, which is going to work at the office, store, or factory.
“It used to be a central ambition of novelists to capture the experience of working life,” he reminds us. “From Balzac to Zola, Dickens to Kafka, they evoked the dynamism and the beauty, the horror and the tedium of the workplace.” Botton gives as one reason for this decline in writing focused on work
the belief that work simply isn’t an interesting subject. . . . This is connected to the fact that much modern work has become white-collar work, almost totally without obvious heroism or romanticism. Farming, fighting, building—these are rich in anecdotes and color, they are the stuff of children’s tales. Less so website optimization and telephone customer management.
The scenario Botton depicts in contemporary fiction largely applies to poetry as well. The exception of the late Philip Levine proves the rule; the reputation he gained for verse about Detroit’s car factories reflects how few other poets address similar subjects. Around the turn of the millennium, however, a pair of poetry collections appeared primarily treating work, and manual labor at that: B. H. Fairchild’s The Art of the Lathe from Alice James Books in 1998, and Mark Turpin’s Hammer from Sarabande Books in 2003. The proximity of these books’ publication dates could be coincidence. But it seems likely that as our shift from an industrial to a service economy in the 1990s hastened the bleaching of the workforce’s collar Botton refers to, their authors sought to explore and commemorate the life we risk losing with manual labor’s decline and marginalization, as Wordsworth did with farming as the Industrial Revolution gained steam. Be that the case or not, the results of Fairchild’s and Turpin’s efforts in drawing on work for poetic material differ dramatically.
Most of The Art of the Lathe deals with the rural town of Liberal, Kansas and the metalworking machine shop where the poems’ speakers work or used to work and their fathers served as foremen. Its “About the Author” note informs us that Fairchild grew up in small towns in Kansas; the title character of “The Ascent of Ira Campbell” addresses its speaker by Fairchild’s last name, and a poem about the speaker’s machinist father bears the coda “Bert Fairchild, 1906-1990.” Hence, it feels safe to assume that The Art of the Lathe’s portrayal of the town and the shop arises from lived experience.
The initial long poem “Beauty” embodies the collection’s thematics in microcosm. It begins with a condemnation of the emotional and intellectual callousness to anything beyond the mundane and the material in the culture of Kansas as scathing as any Willa Cather leveled at the state’s northern neighbor:
We are at the Bargello in Florence, and she says,
what are you thinking? and I say, beauty, thinking
of how very far away we are now from the machine shop
and the dry fields of Kansas . . .
. . . and the muted passions of roughnecks
and scrabble farmers . . .
. . . and it occurs to me again
that no male member of my family has ever used
this word in my hearing or anyone else’s except
in reference, perhaps, to a new pickup or dead deer.
A televised conversation between Robert Penn Warren and Paul Weiss provides the young future poet an epiphany.
Here were two grown men discussing “beauty”
seriously and with dignity as if they and the topic
were as normal as normal topics of discussion
between men such as soybean prices or why
the commodities market was a sucker’s game
or Oklahoma football or Gimpy Neiderland
almost dying from his hemorrhoid operation.
Fairchild associates his surroundings’ emotional and aesthetic poverty with the machine shop, a leading source of employment for the town, where the daily grind of cutting, fashioning, and welding metal inures the workers against the non-concrete and non-utilitarian—“where I worked with my father so many afternoons,/standing or crouched in pools of light and sweat with men/who knew the true meaning of labor and money and other/hard, true things and did not, did not ever, use the word, beauty.” Yet as the “pools of light” in this passage, the “light from the venetian blinds, the autumn/silver Kansas light laving the table that Sunday” just preceding it in a memory of a family dinner, and the “light spilling like grails of milk as someone opens/the mammoth shop door” in “Beauty”’s subsequent section indicate, he realizes that a beauty of their own touches the town and the shop for anyone who cares to notice it. Accordingly, the Tuscan landscape where the poem begins, at first seeming remote from his Kansas background, becomes infused by it, and the workaday and the sublime unite into a broader notion of beauty:
[W]e see the city
blazing like miles of uncut wheat . . .
. . . and the great dome, the way
the metal roof of the machine shop, I tell her,
would break into flame late on an autumn day, with such beauty.
Fairchild articulates this thematic dialectic between the quotidian and the grand in other forms throughout The Art of the Lathe. In “All the People in Hopper’s Paintings,” the young Fairchild, like many at his age, considers the world beyond his own experience somehow more real than the dissatisfying one native to him; paradoxically, the environment he idealizes as “stunned by the flat, hard sea of the real” is that in Edward Hopper’s art. He identifies with its inhabitants, who “were, like me, tragic, dark, undiscovered,” but wonders,
Why was their monotony
blessed, their melancholy apocalyptic, while
my days hung like red rags from my pockets
as I stood, welding torch in hand, and searched
the horizon with the eyes and straight mouth
of Hopper’s women?
Ultimately, though, he realizes that Hopper’s world and people resemble his own to a T (which the poem hints from its beginning), and in his mind he and Hopper’s figures “walk slowly through the small Kansas town/that held me and offered nothing, where the light/fell through the windows of brown rooms, and people/looked out, strangely, as if they had been painted there.” “Airlifting Horses” recounts a helicopter rescue of horses from a brush fire. “The cable that hauls them up//like some kind of spiritual harness vanishes/from sight” as they are lifted, and to observers on the ground each horse becomes a Pegasus, “the gods we always wanted: winged as any myth, strange, distant . . .” The physical, mechanical power of the helicopter—“the propeller’s flail,” the “slings strong enough to lug trucks”—doesn’t detract from the aura of the miraculous around the airlift, instead acting as the real miracle that creates the apparent one. As the book’s title indicates, Fairchild also reconciles banality and beauty by extolling skillful work of the hands as well as of the mind. “The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano” begins, “The brown wrist and hand with its raw knuckles and blue nails/packed with dirt and oil, pause in mid-air,/the fingers arched delicately,//and she mimics him, hand held just so, the wrist loose . . .” From where does this rough-bodied laborer summon the finesse and poise to teach his daughter how to make music? From knowing that his metallurgy, for all the aesthetic deficiencies of the environment in which he practices it, and music derive from the same appetite for beauty, the former transmuting into the latter:
The bit shears the dull iron into new metal, falling
into the steady chant of lathe work,
and the machinist lights a cigarette, holding
in his upturned palms the polonaise he learned at ten,
then later the easiest waltzes,
etudes, impossible counterpoint
True to the esteem in which he holds craft, most of Fairchild’s poetry exhibits well-wrought thematic structure. His poems often begin by setting the scene or presenting the subject’s or situation’s background, then proceed to unfold their narrative or thematic crux, as exemplified by The Art of the Lathe’s title poem:
Leonardo imagined the first one.
The next was a pole lathe with a drive cord,
illustrated in Plumier’s L’art de tourner en perfection.
Then Ramsden, Vauconson, the great Maudslay,
his student Roberts, Fox, Clement, Whitworth.
The long line of machinists to my left
lean into their work, ungloved hands adjusting the calipers,
tapping the bit lightly with their fingertips.
Each man withdraws into his house of work . . .
Foreshadowing has its place in The Art of the Lathe: in “Beauty,” the adolescent speaker’s speculation in the first section that Robert Penn Warren and Paul Weiss might be gay “since here were two grown men talking about ‘beauty’/instead of scratching their crotches and cursing/the goddamned government trying to run everybody’s/business” and reference to California, where the speaker’s uncle lives, serve as a Chekhov’s revolver that the poem fires in its third section, when a pair of new temporary employees from Hollywood strip naked on the machine shop floor. Additionally, Fairchild uses the unique structural device of connecting the end of a poem to something mentioned at its start. “Boy soldiers gawk and babble, eyes rapt/in what seems like worship” begins “Airlifting Horses,” setting up the animals’ apotheosis in the final stanza. This thematic linking of a poem’s extremities endows the poem with a sense of unity, completeness unto itself and being all of a piece, in the manner of the textual linking of the beginning and end of Finnegans Wake.
Less successful are Fairchild’s attempts to organize his poems’ themes with an overarching conceit. “Burn Ward,” the second section of the poem “Thermoregulation in Winter Moths,” weaves a motif of cold among the images of fire and heat natural to its subject. The “arctic zone of uncharted suffering,” the “vast/glacial plain that she would never cross,” and the like in no way arise out of the section’s content; they seem included only to connect the section to the title’s and epigraph’s mention of winter and to impress the superficial reader with its gratuitous contrast. “Keats” draws inconsistent parallels between the life and personality of the speaker’s co-worker and those of the Romantic poet. Like Keats, the unnamed machinist is short and feisty and an impeccable craftsman, and died from damaged lungs—in the machinist’s case, from breathing in the dust of shaved metal—but was Fanny Brawne “a loud/dirty girl with booze breath and bad manners” like the co-worker’s lover, did she and Keats dance “something like a rhumba/to the radio, dishtowels wrapped around/their heads like swamis”? It’s difficult to see why Fairchild spends a good chunk of the poem on an aberration from the conceit that gives it its name. Moreover, “Keats” is a bit less organized thematically than other poems. Before the passage on Marge, the poem presents an example of the machinist’s pugnacity, how he “put the mechanic big/as a Buick through a stack of crates out back . . .” It returns to this subject six and a half lines later (“But it was the work that kept him out of fights . . .”), after we’ve already moved past it and only to immediately drop it again. “The Children” competently elaborates its conceit as a soliloquy by the subject of Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but treats his delusions rather predictably:
More than children: frail, disheveled angels,
the awful weight of their wings shrugged off,
light feet again in love with the earth. They sing
some celestial liturgy too brittle for my ears
and guard the souls of commuters from the beasts
that would otherwise surely drive them into hell.
Maybe Fairchild’s workmanlike focus on particulars unsuits him to developing an all-encompassing motif or trope to govern a poem’s theme. Regrettably, Fairchild lacks the self-awareness to recognize this shortcoming when attempting a conceit-driven poem.
Thematic connections also run across poems in The Art of the Lathe, most often in passages in one poem that allude to or evoke another. Roy Garcia, the subject of “The Welder, Visited by the Angel of Mercy,” reappears in “The Art of the Lathe.” After “Airlifting Horses,” “The Ascension of Ira Campbell” describes a colleague of Fairchild “rising in a scream/on the yellow traveling block that carried/five thousand feet of drill pipe in and out/of the hard summer earth . . .” The flight attendant in “The Himalayas” thinks of “the monk described in the travel book/trying to untangle his legs and stand once more/at the mouth of his cave”; the first section of “Thermoregulation in Winter Moths,” also entitled “The Himalayas,” is about a group of Buddhist monks from those mountains who can regulate their body temperature. In addition, both “In the House of the Latin Professor” and “After the Storm” depict the aftermath of catastrophe. If the thematic organization of individual poems mirrors the finish of a wrought object, the thematic ties between poems weave the book into an organic whole, revealing the dimensions of Fairchild’s psyche and its abiding fascinations.
In the collection’s early poems, long stanzas with long lines predominate— “Cigarettes,” “The Himalayas,” and the sections of “Beauty” all consist of long single stanzas. This tendency proves conducive to the loose, conversational rhythm and voice with which Fairchild captures the matter-of-fact atmosphere of the machine shop and its town. In his back-cover blurb for The Art of the Lathe, Dana Gioia comments, “Fairchild boldly plunders the territories of prose to expand the possibilities of contemporary verse. He undertakes to translate the various and splendid particularities of the novel, the memoir, and the travelogue and heighten them into the lyric mode.” Fairchild accomplishes this by incorporating the characterization, long-term narrative scope, and sense of setting of fiction or creative nonfiction into what remain essentially lyric poems; as the long lines and stanzas of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” do with abstract meditation and historical anecdote, those of Fairchild help assimilate the prose elements mentioned above into The Art of the Lathe’s lyric sensibility. Most of the book’s later poems feature shorter lines and stanzas, the latter usually of uniform length, tightening the overall rhythm and sharpening the voice’s pitch to raise them to a typically lyric register. The shift in stanza pattern thereby reflects the collection’s theme of movement from the mundane to the sublime.
One would expect Fairchild’s concern for craftsmanship to make itself felt most in his prosody, but his handling of his free-verse rhythm proves uneven. He certainly demonstrates skill in applying and manipulating rhythm in many places. The prevalence of stressed syllables at the end of the first section of “Beauty” imparts a heaviness to the rhythm in keeping with its subject of people whose minds and lives are bound by the concrete. In the third section, the same technique evokes the quiet of the shop and generates a sense of foreboding right before the stripping incident:
[T]he shop has grown suddenly still here
in the middle of the workday, and I turn to look
through the tall doors where the machinists stand now
with their backs to me, the lathes whining down together,
and in the shop’s center, I see them standing in a square
of light, the two men from California, as the welders
lift their black masks, looking up, and I see their faces first . . .
Fairchild also aptly uses predominance of unstressed syllables: in the line “it’s the world as the world appears, but provisional somehow” from “The Invisible Man,” the abundance of anapests creates a shaky, unsettled rhythm reflecting provisionality. Occasionally, The Art of the Lathe’s poems contain regularly metrical lines. The hexameter of the line “lying quietly like carpets on the pavement” in “All the People in Hopper’s Paintings,” more drawn-out than the traditional pentameter, conveys the tone of stasis rife in Hopper’s art, while the strict trochaic rhythm conveys its ominous undertones (think of the theme from Jaws as a repeated musical trochee).
But Fairchild also misuses each of these rhythmic devices. The line “and she mimics him, hand held just so, the wrist loose” from “The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano” is much too stress-heavy to resonate with the daughter’s loose wrist. Back at the Hopper poem, the anapests in “The wordless, stale/affair with the filling station attendant” make the rhythm too upbeat for “stale.” In addition, “collapsed from breathing in a life of work” from “Keats” could use more unstressed syllables to create a sense of collapse; its regular iambic pentameter gives it too firm a rhythmic undergirding for its content.
Enjambment plays a prominent part in The Art of the Lathe’s prosody—playing with the transition between lines, it too reflects the book’s theme of movement from the mundane to the sublime and interaction between them. Fairchild makes enjambment flexible to his purposes: in the more prose-like early poems it contributes to the prosy style by syntactically obviating the line break, while in the more lyrical later poems its breaking of boundaries contributes to an ecstatic mood. In multiple poems, Fairchild cleverly enjambs lines ending with the verb “to lean.” Conversely, sometimes enjambment emphasizes the line break, the fact that the line ends without the phrase ending. When “The Invisible Man” recounts, “the bandages/uncoil from his face and lo, there’s nothing between/the hat and suit,” the enjambment separating the preposition “between” from its objects reproduces the disjunction felt when seeing the invisible man’s hat floating above his suit with no head to rest on. The frequent enjambment of “In the House of the Latin Professor” runs counter to the poem’s theme, however; one would expect more end-stopped lines in a poem about death.
As with other prosodic devices, Fairchild’s effectiveness in using consonance and assonance varies. The m sounds in the line “The air around me hums in a dark metallic bass” in “Beauty” echo exactly what the line narrates. In the same poem’s “The noise is awful, a gang of roughnecks from a rig/on down-time shouting orders, our floor hands knee-deep,” the diphthong ow, the sound of a cry of pain, reflects the eardrum-splitting cacophony in the machine shop that the lines describe. On the other hand, the k, q, and hard c sounds in “I bring them back, watching the quick cloud of vapor that blooms” from “Speaking the Names” are too solid and severe for the line’s image of vapor, and the trio of l’s in the first line of “The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano”—“The brown wrist and hand with its raw knuckles and blue nails”—are too delicate and languid for the harsh, blunt image of the work-worn hand.
Though somewhat frequent, Fairchild’s missteps with sound manage not to spoil the poems. Fairchild keeps his prosody subtle enough that it produces its effects, good or ill, under the radar, operating on the reader almost subliminally thanks to the less obtrusive nature of free verse as well as to Fairchild’s (mostly) conscientious attention to craft, concealing in the finished product the work that went into it. Prosodically, thematically, and stylistically, several poems in The Art of the Lathe are excellent, most are good, a few are poor. But nearly all rivet the reader’s interest.
Carpentry is the craft Mark Turpin dwells on in Hammer; its author information states that when the book appeared in 2003, Turpin had worked for a quarter-century in construction as a master carpenter and crew foreman. Hammer doesn’t have an overarching thematic dynamic arising from carpentry like The Art of the Lathe’s dialectic between the mundane and sublime arising from the machine shop—although some poems touch on a few recurring themes, such as imagining the person or people behind a house (whether architect, builders, or residents) and the inevitable decline, decay, or destruction of things both constructed and natural. For the most part, Hammer’s poems don’t explore the world or culture of carpentry deeply enough for any thematic dynamic to arise from them. The speaker of “Before Groundbreak” walks a job site at the beginning of construction and imagines the future residents living in the house, concluding,
Standing there, out of breath, where
they would stand, vacuuming
or reaching for a towel, how bare
and graspable it will seem, and, ever-present,
our time and effort spent.
What about their effort spent will or should endure in the edifice it was spent on? The eighteen lines of “Gene Lance” open with the announcement “He misses the years after the war” but say little distinctively about that period, regarding construction and carpentry or in general, other than the ensuing line, “The tracts of houses springing up.” Hammer abounds with details of the trade of carpentry, names of tools and kinds of tasks and procedures, but seldom goes behind these to attempt to grasp the intangibles of the craft as The Art of the Lathe does for metalwork.
Most of Hammer’s poems have a sturdy, methodical, but not stiff thematic structure—in classic carpentry fashion—in which the theme deepens or progresses at somewhat regular intervals. At times the shift to a new level of thematic development occurs at a stanza’s end, at times in mid-stanza. But Turpin also varies from this template interestingly. “Last Hired” begins with the aftermath of the poem’s events, a fired worker’s return to ask for the telephone number of a co-worker he loaned money to, then relates his story from starting work with the speaker’s crew to the moment the speaker fired him. “Waiting for Lumber” doesn’t develop much thematically at all, but that’s precisely the point: the crew can’t do anything until their wood shipment arrives, and rehashing this theme back and forth captures their listlessness accordingly. “Pickwork” commences as a treatise on excavating at a construction site with a pick: “The inexperienced pretend to see in the dirt a face they hate,/and exhaust themselves. The best//measure themselves against an arbitrary goal, this much/before lunch, before break, before a drink of water . . .” Halfway through the poem, however, Turpin deftly pivots into a portrait of Lorenzo, a worker at Turpin’s site whose pickstrokes he hears all day:
And driving home he has told me of his landlord who extorts him
for the green card he doesn’t have, of his “mo-ther”
dying of cancer in Mexico City, of his son-of-a-bitch
dad who beat him, and her, and ran away, of his brother Michael,
and Joaquim, in Chicago, the central valley.
Not all of Turpin’s variations from his usual model of graduated thematic development succeed, unfortunately. The first three stanzas in “Nailer” get inside the head of a carpenter at work; the fourth stanza paints the setting of the jobsite:
[H]ere and there are smaller piles of concrete rubble heaped up—to be hauled away?
Or spread for fill?
Cement and sand and gravel, concrete
is what the world is built of, gushes rattling into
roads and dams, bears the iron of bridges in bay mud.
Green, it is brittle as chalk
and warm to the touch. Two hundred years: it rots like wood.
In twenty-eight days the test cylinder of a seven-sack mix
is hard like real rock.
The following stanza continues the landscape description, and the last two stanzas are an ode of sorts to concrete. Leaving aside the stanza of interruption between the introduction of concrete as a theme and its elaboration, nothing hinges the theme of concrete to that of hammering the way the sound of Lorenzo’s pick in “Pickwork” hinges his character sketch to Turpin’s earlier disquisition on the tool. “Nailer” really wants to be two different poems. Worse, the theme of building on a muddy, treacherous incline in “Downslope” ends just after the beginning of its fourth stanza, while the bulk of that stanza and the other four stanzas continue narrating the construction without any underlying theme save an allusion to the original one at the end: “And then this memory: The stone,/As it casually rolled free—and the operator’s helper,/Arms in the air, chasing it with feet pounding: running/Madly down the grade.” Mistakes like these expose Turpin’s inattention to his work’s conceptual level and to the thematic and structural soundness of his choices as a poet.
Hammer is divided into five sections—the first, fourth, and fifth focusing on carpentry, the second on history, and the third on family. The rationale for this placement of the sections isn’t apparent but seems unobjectionable, although the first and fourth sections resemble each other enough thematically that it’s not clear why Turpin separates them. I do wonder why Turpin chose to name the first section after the poem “A Carpenter’s Body”; its poems generally have more to do with the deeds and personalities of the carpenters it depicts than with their physiques. The only other section to bear a title is the fifth, “The World of Things.” Again, this is the title of one of its poems, but is much too general to capture the section’s focus on the work environment of construction and carpentry.
The organization of some of Hammer’s sections puzzles. The only guiding principle for the placement of poems in the first section seems to be spacing similar poems apart from each other, presumably to avoid the impression of overkill: the character sketches of “Pickwork” and “Don Fargo & Sons,” the reflections on the builder behind the structure in “The Box” and “The Man Who Built This House,” “Carpenter” and “A Carpenter’s Body.” Only two poems comprise the second section. In the third section, “Aubade,” about the touch of cruelty beneath a husband’s genuine love for his wife, would make more sense coming before the preceding “In Winter,” in which divorce plays a prominent part. The fifth section’s sequence of poems proves best, beginning with the theme of beginnings—of a workday in “Setting Up,” of a working life in “The World of Things”—and progressing to preoccupation with decay and destruction near its end.
Hammer coheres thematically across sections, by means similar to those by which The Art of the Lathe achieves its thematic interconnection. While the first section contains a few pairs of similar poems within it, the book also features poems on similar subjects and of similar kinds in different sections. “Hammer” in Section One and “Sledgehammer’s Song” in Section Four deal with the same category of tool, the second half of “Pickwork” in the first section and “Gene Lance” in the fourth both sketch a co-worker’s character, and the first half of “Pickwork” and “Nailer” in the final section capture the thoughts and actions of a worker at a monotonous, solitary task. Characters like Gene Lance, Dee, and Chris recur through the book, although in most cases we hardly see enough of them to sense the men behind the names. Overall, thematic structure in Hammer resembles that of The Art of the Lathe by succeeding most often when focusedon particulars like connecting specific subjects and characters recurring, but falters on matters of comprehensive thematics like that represented by its section titles.
Turpin bungles Hammer’s writing style more than any other aspect; Fairchild commits his share of stylistic solecisms, but not nearly as copiously and conspicuously as Turpin. Turpin tends to tell, not show, in Hammer. “The World of Things” relates,
Soon I began to adopt the physical swagger
universal to men who work with their bodies:
an acceptance of weariness, of gravity,
of weight—and a defiant nonchalance
in response to it, the posture
recognizable in the hips and shoulders.
The poem doesn’t visualize how the contradictory “acceptance of weariness” and “defiant nonchalance” manifest in the hips and shoulders—that swagger is not, in fact, “recognizable,” and consequently the final phrase strikes the reader as empty. Imprecision blights Hammer still more: the speaker of “The Furrow” recalls about riding home from his grandfather’s funeral as a child, “[T]he stars/above the highway churned.” Technically stars do churn in spiral galaxies like our own that spin, but not to the naked eye, and this tidbit of astrophysics wouldn’t be top-of-mind for a child small enough for his father to lift, as he does at the poem’s opening. Turpin occasionally drops non-sequiturs, as in the line “Quickness that once shouldered a beam” from “A Carpenter’s Body.” What does shouldering a beam, a feat of strength, have to do with speed? Returning to “Nailer,” Turpin’s verbal clumsiness descends to sheer unintelligibility in the line “the floor honey like a field.” Does “floor” function as an adjective modifying “honey,” or is Turpin equating the floor with honey? How is either a floor or honey similar to a field? None of the possible interpretations makes sense.
Embarrassingly, Turpin even commits several mechanical mistakes in Hammer’s writing. A description of a fallen soldier in “Photograph From Antietam” reads, “Both sleeves are rolled, and a vein//in the crooked forearm still seems to bulge—/the other lies on his chest . . .” Turpin evidently has no idea he has told us that a disembodied vein lies on the soldier’s chest—that’s the grammatical antecedent of “the other,” not “forearm.” “Jobsite Wind” provides another example of too-brief syntactical attention span with “Wind that threaded the trembling sticks of the house//. . . shoring spreadlegged, watching my hand hammering/in rhythm to my breath”; “I” never appears after “wind” to replace it as the participles’ subject. In the punctuation department, Turpin likes to introduce dialogue with dashes instead of commas, for no discernible reason and to no effect. A dash separates a subject from its verb in “The Aftermath,” making the past-tense verb look on a first reading like another of the preceding participial adjectives: “Scorched foundations, concrete burnt/strangely pink, bereft even of mudsill—hosted//swimming poppies as did the hills/anywhere hose could stretch.” Turpin suffers from a dire aversion to semicolons, resulting in run-on sentences, which when used sparingly can refreshingly loosen poetic syntax and produce a sense of boundlessness or wandering, pointlessly permeating the collection ad nauseam. If Turpin handled his carpentry tools as improperly as he handles the literary tools of diction, grammar, and punctuation, he wouldn’t have remained a carpenter for long.
Most poems in Hammer consist of short stanzas of an equal number of lines, like those in the latter half of The Art of the Lathe. As in that book, the identical length of a poem’s stanzas both bespeaks emphasis on craft (especially in Hammer’s case, evoking the foursquare congruence of carpentry) yet seems somewhat arbitrary, most of all when the theme shifts to a new level mid-stanza. The few poems written in lengthy single stanzas work well: this form adds to the sense of interminable dawdling in “Waiting for Lumber” and lends itself admirably to the tone of probing into what the building and painting are all about in “The Man Who Built This House” and “Millet’s Shepherdess with her Flock,” respectively. The briefer single-stanza form of “Poem” and “Sonnet” contributes nothing to those poems, however—like many poems labeled sonnets by their contemporary American authors, the latter resembles the form only in having fourteen lines—and the same applies to “Nailer”’s long stanzas of differing lengths.
Rhythm is more pronounced in Hammer than in The Art of the Lathe; the former book doesn’t aspire to the latter’s prose-like effects. Hammer provides many instances of adept handling of rhythm. “The Box” and “Pickwork” have a roughly iambic baseline rhythm imitating that of swinging the hammer and pick they center on. In “Laborer’s Code”’s line “is the property line, sagging across the view,” the sudden switch to a trochee, a descending foot, after the ascending anapests of the line’s first half perfectly captures the sag of the property line described. The over-the-top effect of the three consecutive stressed syllables at the end of “from a cardboard box too tall” from “Don Fargo & Sons” creates a sense of excess reflecting the size of the box, as well as of the awkwardness of its inability “to fit beneath the seat” of the title character’s car. Yet Turpin messes up the good thing he has going. The nearly perfect iambic rhythm of the first line of “Jobsite Wind”—“that rips paper from the walls and changes plywood into sails”—is far too even for the turbulent, destructive force the line describes. Meanwhile, the anapests in “And I wondered if his flatness was meant to be” in “Carpenter” have no business making a line invoking flatness sound so upbeat. Turpin could have gone a long way toward making the rhythm appropriately more regular by removing the extraneous “And” at the start of the line. Turpin demonstrates facility with rhythm as such, but only desultory awareness of its role in amplifying a poem’s sense.
Enjambment appears frequently in Hammer. It rarely has any particular relation to the poem’s content or theme where it occurs; I think Turpin’s fondness for enjambment instead reflects his preoccupation as a carpenter with joining things, securing them to each other, leading him to emphasize the place where one line becomes another. More meaningful at the local level is the rare dearth of enjambment, as in “Last Hired,” whose frequent end-stops reinforce the intentional distance the speaker and his veteran workers keep from the incompetent newcomer.
“The Box” contains good examples of consonance and its alignment with the meaning of the lines that feature it. The r’s in the line “the hammer, and brought it down with fury and with skill” sound like growls of fury, while in the phrase “a side job he planned to make ends meet,” the lips meeting to form the m sounds literalize the figurative colloquialism concluding the phrase. But in “Dawn, and a wind blowing,” the first line of “Setting Up,” the thickness and dullness evoked by the d sounds don’t match the ephemeral beauty of sunrise and wind. The line “swam among them. Megaliths” and the passage of “The Aftermath” that contains it feature none of the emotional or conceptual significances, such as closure or satisfaction, usually conjured by its predominant m sound. Hammer’s many glaring defects in this and other areas, accumulating through the book and detracting from its strengths, can’t help disappointing the critical reader.
Does anything aside from level of technical skill, anything in the subject matter itself, account for the difference in quality between The Art of the Lathe’s versified consideration of the working life and that of Hammer? The ends of the crafts practiced by their respective authors could play a part. Metalwork produces tools or implements like the pipes in “The Ascent of Ira Campbell”; it makes things for use, for activity, and this orientation toward activity translates into the vitality pervading The Art of the Lathe. Construction works toward occupancy, a static, passive use—hence the conceptual, emotional, and stylistic flatness in much of Hammer. Of course, the process itself of carpentry is quite dynamic. Turpin describes this dynamism, but seldom fully reproduces or embodies it.
A more crucial factor might be the guiding force of the two crafts in question. Standard procedure governs the operation of machines, and Fairchild’s poems reflect this due attention to procedure. The confidence with which Fairchild knows, on the whole, just how to create his earthy, prosy style and his more lyrical style, how to structure his poems, what and how much to reveal about a person for characterization, and what details to include to establish setting might parallel the confidence with which he knows what to do with his machine to impart a given effect to metal. Construction, however, follows the dictates of the architect’s, developer’s, and/or future homeowner’s desires; procedure depends on and bends to that. Turpin wants to write poetry about construction and carpentry, but has little to say about them. His poetic procedure, his technique, falters and often proves uninspired because his poems lack a “meter-making argument,” in Emerson’s phrase, to guide them to a satisfactory shape—they simply go through the motions of portraying carpentry without forging their portrayals into distinctive artistic experiences. As a result, although Fairchild works with machines, Turpin’s poetry ironically feels more mechanical.