Why I’m Not A Carpenter

By Tony Barnstone

Each time the carpenter with a sharp rap sets a nail
then whangs it head and shaft into the tan flesh of the wood
and slips the hammer back into the leather belt,
I think of Achilles casting his spear so fast
it pinned the Amazon queen and her horse together
“as a man might impale some innards on a spit.”
Each time he sinks a nail he says below his breath,
“mmn-hmn,” as if to say, “Yes, that will do,”
then sets and sinks the next. Yes, he’s my brother,
but it’s enough to make me want to whack him one
as I jag my cuts, and ding the wood,
and warp the nail, and skew the screw.
His rhythmic hammerings make perfect stress,
tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap, but half my mind’s
trying to write a poem, so my hammering’s a mess,
like the failed lines I mouth below my breath
—until a hopeful phrase sends me scrabbling
for the flat, fat-tipped carpenter’s pencil and a square of plywood,
something about swimming at Spy Lake after work,
white flashes diving from the canoe
and concentric moonlight like rippled music,
the lakewater turned to black vinyl and my body
the needle that moves within the groove.
I wanted to write something about the shout
ripped out of the mouth by joy, the strangeness of being
a being channeled through time,
pierced by the needle of right now, and the way
we kill our life by living it, and the song of
all we were unraveling behind us, the song that plays
as a record spins to its end, and the sorrow
of that, and how I still sing in the shower.
That’s the poem that I wanted to write
but that was twenty years ago,
and every line I wrote that summer
went into the scrap and sawdust pile,
and all that sun-moist morning I hoisted
the pickaxe and made it sing on asphalt,
sank post holes, fucked up cuts with the SkilSaw,
thought literary thoughts, and screwed up.
And since I was more a poet than a man,
my brother sent me to buy studs at the yard
ten blocks off, and when I got lost in Boston
and dragged in hours later like a bedraggled sailor,
the crew just laughed and went back to their tasks,
And it’s time to tell the truth:
that was thirty years ago and I’ve gone on
to other crafts, the way today I take the pen shaft
in my hand and cast my mind into the void
and with each line I give a little “huh!” of joy.
And you don’t have to tell me how after he bragged
about his feat Achilles removed the queen’s helmet
and her blonde hair spilled free in strands of light,
and her goddess face shone, and, pierced himself,
he fell to his knees and mourned
the beauty he’d killed with his great shaft.
I know it’s not heroic to fix my mind to the page
in lines like a butterfly pinned and dried, and I know just this of carpentry:
once the house is built the rot sets in.
But since making is what I have,
I make what I can out of this long unmaking
with what tools I have at hand
now that my power tools are powered down
and covered with a powdering of dust,
now that my yellow leather carpenter’s belt has stiffened,
its pockets stuffed with nails long turned to rust.

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