“Why I’m Not a Carpenter” by Tony Barnstone

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.

from Rattle #36, Winter 2011
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Tony Barnstone: “‘Why I’m Not a Carpenter’ was a poem I wrote inspired by a dinner I had with Yusef Komunyakaa, who is editing an anthology of carpenter poems. At that dinner, I promised Yusef a poem, and so wrote this one to order. My brother Rob is a former carpenter who is now an architect and professor, and I spent many of the summers of my youth working with Rob renovating houses in Greece and Boston, in Vermont and Indiana. In our unusual crew, the working class grunt sinking post holes or wiping his sawdust-covered brow was most likely a Harvard architecture student, a brilliant painter, or, in my case, a graduate student at Berkeley writing his dissertation on William Carlos Williams, and I strongly felt the way these different kinds of craft still carried gender biases and constructions of masculinity and femininity. I decided to reference my insufficient skills as a carpenter and as a poet in part by alluding to the title of Frank O’Hara’s wonderful poem ‘Why I’m Not a Painter,’ in which he shows the parallel and yet divergent skill sets and mind sets that go into painting versus poetry. Another element in the poem, the story about Achilles killing the Amazon queen, comes not from The Iliad, but from the 4th century epic poem by Quintus of Smyma that I happened to be reading. Quintus’s epic, titled Posthomerica, is a Trojan War poem that creates some new Homeric stories and puts a new spin on the familiar ones. The final element that I blended in was a failed draft of a poem that I had tried to write while working on a crew in Boston in 1988 or so. I am particularly happy that that failed draft, one that I worked on for years without success, has finally been crafted into the poem that I like. Thank you, Yusef!” (web)

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