Thursday, March 29, 2007

Where Has This Poet Been All My Life?


Bertram Fairchild, BH Fairchild, is wonderful. I love his poetry. I have to get The Art of the Lathe now.

Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest

Awesome title. Like Angel of History, I see a rich backdrop of repeating details and characters that creates an alternate world that is excessively enjoyable to inhabit. This book is much much more accessible than Angel though. Based off of his experience working in his father's lathe shop, these poems sing. They show a tension between education/the arts and a blue collar upbringing. Early in the book, "Rave On" shows the best and worst of small town life before Roy and Maria Garcia begin educating the persona in the outside world. It seems everything else happens in the twenty-seven page poem, "The Blue Buick: A Narrative." Fairchild uses the car to get into his complex relationships with Roy and Maria, then provides a beautiful overview of events leading to the town falling apart. The end of the relationship and its long-term impact on his life close out the poem. This poem is stunning. No boring parts at all. The book itself is kind of upstaged by these two poems, but there are some other amazing works in here.

This is the title poem from his 1999 Kingsley Tufts award winner:

"The Art of the Lathe"

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:
the rough cut, shearing of iron by tempered steel,
blue-black threads lifting like locks of hair,
then breaking over bevel and ridge.
Oil and water splash over the whitening bit, hissing.
The lathe on night-shift, moonlight silvering the bed-ways.

The old man I apprenticed with, Roy Garcia,
in silk shirt, khakis, and Florsheims. Cautious,
almost delicate explanations and slow,
shapely hand movements. Craft by repetition.
Haig and Haig behind the tool chest.

In Diderot's Encyclopaedia, an engraving
of a small machine shop: forge and bellows in back,
in the foreground a mandrel lathe turned by a boy.
It is late afternoon, and the copper light leaking in
from the street side of the shop just catches
his elbow, calf, shoe. Taverns begin to crowd
with workmen curling over their tankards,
still hearing in the rattle of carriages over cobblestone
the steady tap of the treadle,
the gasp and heave of the bellows.

The boy leaves the shop, cringing into the light,
and digs the grime from his fingernails, blue
from bruises. Walking home, he hears a clavier—
Couperin, maybe, a Bach toccata—from a window overhead.
Music, he thinks, the beautiful.
Tavern doors open. Voices. Grab and hustle of the street.
Cart wheels. The small room of his life. The darkening sky.

I listen to the clunk-and-slide of the milling machine,
Maudsley's art of clarity and precision: sculpture of poppet,
saddle, jack screw, pawl, cone-pulley,
the fit and mesh of gears, tooth in groove like interlaced fingers.
I think of Mozart folding and unfolding his napkin
as the notes sound in his head. The new machinist sings Patsy Cline,
I Fall to Pieces. Sparrows bicker overhead.
Screed of the grinder, the bandsaw's groan and wail.

In his boredom the boy in Diderot
studies again through the shop's open door
the buttresses of Suger's cathedral
and imagines the young Leonardo in his apprenticeship
staring through the window at Brunelleschi's dome,
solid yet miraculous, a resurrected body, floating above the city.

Outside, a cowbird cries, flapping up from the pipe rack,
the ruffling of wings like a quilt flung over a bed.
Snow settles on the tops of cans, black rings in a white field.
The stock, cut clean, gleams under lamplight.
After work, I wade back through the silence of the shop:
the lathes shut down, inert, like enormous animals in hibernation,
red oil rags lying limp on the shoulders
of machines, dust motes still climbing shafts
of dawn light, hook and hoist chain lying desultory
as an old drunk collapsed outside a bar,
barn sparrows pecking on the shores of oil puddles—
emptiness, wholeness; a cave, a cathedral.

As morning light washes the walls of Florence,
the boy Leonardo mixes paints in Verrocchio's shop
and watches the new apprentice muddle
the simple task of the Madonna's shawl.
Leonardo whistles a canzone and imagines
a lathe: the spindle, bit, and treadle, the gleam of brass.