June 9, 2012

Tony Barnstone

WHY I’M NOT A CARPENTER

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.

from Rattle #36, Winter 2011
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist