The Art of the Lathe. B.H. Fairchild. Alice James Books. University of Maine at Farmington. Farmington, Maine. 1998.
1999 Pen Center USA West Poetry Award
1999 William Carlos Williams Award
1999 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award
1998 National Book Award Finalist
1997 Beatrice Hawley Award
For many knowledgeable poetry fans it will be old news that B.H. Fairchild's The Art of the Lathe is a contemporary classic. Today's book of poetry got Fairchild's gem in the mail yesterday and as a result we are sailing slightly off course today.
With our vast resources Today's book of poetry has started to gather foreign correspondents. We currently have Otis wandering through the poetry cellars of Sicily searching for treasure, he will be returning soon. Our latest addition to the staff is a trumpet playing be-bop artist from St. Louis, Mark Twang.
Mark grew up in reasonably normal environs but somewhere early on someone dropped a Pork Pie hat on his noggin' and he hasn't been quite right since. Twang has been raiding his own vast library to send pieces of gold north. Twang sent David Lee to our door and you will be hearing much more about Mr. Lee in the near future because he is a monster. We had a thing, instantly, for David Lee. So we put him in the system.
The system wouldn't wait for B.H. Fairchild's The Art of the Lathe. Today's book of poetry apologizes for not having read it before but you simply can't read everything, or find it. Twang had sent us individual poems by B.H. Fairchild in his letters, along with quotes from Sonny Rollins and a couple of Crying Charlies. Today's book of poetry was instantly convinced by those poems. When The Art of the Lathe arrived we knew no one would object if Fairchild skipped his place in line.
The Art of the Lathe is an eye-opening deal breaker of extraordinary beauty. Fairchild uses some deep sonar of the human spirit to get inside of the reader and then sets off bombs of reason. The Art of the Lathe is the real deal. When Twang sent it to us he included a note where he suggested that The Art of the Lathe may be the best, pound for pound, book of poetry he has ever read. I happen to know for a fact that Mark Twang has read, and understood, more poetry than I have so I take his opinion to heart. That and he's been right about everything else he has told us.
So when The Art of the Lathe arrived I dug in.
Dear reader please believe me when I tell you that Mark Twang was right as rain. The Art of the Lathe may be the finest book of poetry I've ever had the pleasure of reading.
Body and Soul
Half-numb, guzzling bourbon and Coke from coffee mugs,
our fathers fall in love with their own stories, nuzzling
the facts but mauling the truth, and my friend's father begins
to lay out with the slow ease of a blues ballad a story
about sandlot baseball in Commerce, Oklahoma decades ago.
These were men's teams, grown men, some in their thirties
and forties who worked together in zinc mines or on oil rigs,
sweat and khaki and long beers after work, steel guitar music
whanging in their ear, little white rent houses to return to
where their wives complained about money and broken Kenmores
and then said the hell with it and sang Body and Soul
in the bathtub stroking their husband's wrist tattoo and smoking
Chesterfields from a fresh pack until everything was O.K.
Well, you get the idea. Life goes on, the next day is Sunday,
another ball game, and the other team shows up one man short.
They say, we're one man short, but can we use this boy,
he's only fifteen years old, and at least he'll make a game.
They take a look at the kid, muscular and kind of knowing
the way he holds his glove, with the shoulders loose,
the thick neck, but then with that boy's face under
a clump of angelic blonde hair, and say, oh, hell, sure,
let's play ball. So it all begins, the men loosening up,
joking about the fat catcher's sex life, it's so bad
last night he had to hump his wife, that sort of thing,
pairing off into little games of catch that heat up into
throwing matches, the smack of the fungo bat, lazy jogging
into right field, big smiles and arcs of tobacco juice,
and the talk that gives a cool, easy feeling to the air,
talk among men normally silent, normally brittle and a little
angry with the empty promise of their lives. But they chatter
and say rock and fire, babe, easy out, and go right ahead
and pitch to the boy, but nothing fancy, just hard fastballs
right around the belt, and the kid takes the first two
but on the third pops the bat around so quick and sure
that they pause a moment before turning around to watch
the ball still rising and finally dropping far beyond
the abandoned tractor that marks left field. Holy shit.
They're pretty quiet watching him round the bases,
but then, what the hell, the kids knows how to hit a ball,
so what, let's play some goddamned baseball here.
And so it goes. The next time up, the boy gets a look
at a very nifty low curve, then a slider, and the next one
is the curve again, and he sends it over the Allis Chambers,
high and big and sweet. The left fielder just stands there, frozen.
As if this isn't enough, the next time up he bats left-handed.
They can't believe it, and the pitcher, a tall, mean-faced
man from Okarche who just doesn't give a shit anyway
because his wife ran off two years ago leaving him with
three little ones and a rusted-out Dodge with a cracked block,
leans in hard, looking at the fat catcher like he was the sonofabitch
who ran off with his wife, leans in and throws something
out of the dark, green hell of forbidden fastballs, something
that comes in at the knees and then leaps viciously towards
the kid's elbow. He swings exactly the way he did right-handed,
and they all turn like a chorus line toward deep right field
where the ball loses itself in sagebrush and the sad burnt
dust of dustbowl Oklahoma. It is something to see.
But why make a long story long: runs pile up on both sides,
the boy comes around five times, and five times the pitcher
is cursing both God and His mother as his chew of tobacco sours
into something resembling horse piss, and a ragged and bruised
Spalding baseball disappears into the far horizon. Goodnight,
Irene. They have lost the game and some painful side bets
and they have been suckered. And it means nothing to them
though it should to you when they are told the boy's name is
Mickey Mantle. And that's the story, and those are the facts.
But the facts are not the truth. I think, though, as I scan
the faces of these old men now lost in the innings of their youth,
I think I know what the truth of this story is, and I imagine
it lying there in the weeds behind that Allis Chalmers
just waiting for the obvious question to be asked: why, oh
why in hell didn't they just throw around the kid, walk him,
after he hit the third homer? Anybody would have,
especially nine men with disappointed wives and dirty socks
and diminishing expectations for who winning at anything
meant everything. Men who knew how to play the game,
who had talent when the other team had nothing except this ringer
who without a pitch to hit was meaningless, and they could
with their little two-dollar side bets and stride into the house
singing If You've Got the Money, Honey, I've Got the Time
with a bottle of Southern Comfort under their arms and grab
Dixie or May Ella up and dance across the gray linoleum
as if it were V-Day all over again. But they did not.
And they did not because they were men, and this was a boy.
And they did not because sometimes after making love,
after smoking their Chesterfields in the cool silence and
listening to the big bands on the radio that sounded so glamorous,
so distant, they glanced over at their wives and noticed the lines
growing heavier around the eyes and the mouth, felt what their wives
felt: that Les Brown and Glenn Miller and all those dancing
and in fact all possibility of human gaiety and light-heartedness
were as far away and unreachable as Times Square or the Avalon
ballroom. They did not because of the gray linoleum lying there
in the half-dark, the free calendar from the local mortuary
that said one day was pretty much like another, the work gloves
looped over the doorknob like dead squirrels. And they did not
because they had gone through a depression and a war that
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamned much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen year-old boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home. But there is one thing more, though it is not
a fact. When I see my friend's father staring hard into the
well of home plate as Mantle's fifth homer heads towards Arkansas,
I know that this man with the half-orphaned children and
worthless Dodge has also encountered for his first and possibly
only time the vast gap between talent and genius, has seen
as few have in the harsh light of an Oklahoma Sunday, the blonde
and blue-eyed bringer of truth, who will not easily be forgiven.
Today's book of poetry isn't much of a baseball fan and suspect that many of you aren't big ball fans either but we do know how difficult it is to dream the real thoughts of men and women and make them more than real on the page. When Fairchild gets through with you it is almost possible to believe that the stories in his poems are your own experience.
As a recent convert to the House of Fairchild I have assigned Milo, our head tech, the task of filling all the missing Fairchild spaces on our racks. He was able to find a copy of Fairchild's Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest (W.W. Norton Books, 2003) on the shelves but that won't ever be enough.
I knew him. He ran the lathe next to mine.
Perfectionist, a madman, even on overtime
Saturday night. Hum of the crowd floating
from the ball park, shouts, slamming doors
from the bar down the street, he would lean
into the lathe and make a little song
with the honing cloth, rubbing the edges,
smiling like a man asleep, dreaming.
A short guy, but fearless. At Margie's
he would take no lip, put the mechanic big
as a Buick through a stack of crates out back
and walked away with a broken thumb
but never said a word. Marge was a loud
dirty girl with booze breath and bad manners.
He loved her. One night late I saw them in
the kitchen dancing something like a rhumba
to the radio, dishtowels wrapped around
their heads like swamis. Their laughter chimed
rich as brass rivets rolling down a tin roof.
But it was the work that kept him out of fights,
and I remember the red hair flaming
beneath the lamp, calipers measuring out
the last cut, his hands flicking iron burrs
like shooting stars through the shadows.
It was the iron, cut to a perfect fit, smooth
as bone chine and gleaming under lamplight
that made him stand back, take out a smoke,
and sing. It was the dust that got him, his lungs
collapsed from breathing in a life of work.
Lying there, his hands are what I can't forget.
B.H. Fairchild had some very rapt ears on his work this morning. It is bitterly cold here in Ottawa today but our reading helped to heat up the office. Milo, our head tech, was very dignified, Kathleen, our Jr. Editor, gushed. Max, our Sr. Editor, harrumphed as he marched out into the cold but he was smiling when he marched back in. Max gave us a world-class reading of "Body and Soul", Odin grinned from the corner.
Our foreign correspondent Otis is still in Sicily checking out wine cellars but he's scheduled to return later this week. Otis also sent a note making sure I included him when the staff here at Today's book of poetry welcomed our newest member, Mark Twang.
After reading B.H. Fairchild's The Art of the Lathe I am now considering making all of our future staff take an oath of office by swearing on Fairchild.
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 students Roberts, Fox, Clement, Whitworth.
The long line of machinists to my left
lean into their work, ungloved hands adjusting the calipers,
tapping the big 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
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 chains lying desultory
as an old drunk collapsed outside a bar,
barn swallows 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.
Today's book of poetry is thrilled to travel back to 1998 to bring you this masterwork. Make no mistake, B.H. Fairchild's The Art of the Lathe is as good as it gets.
ABOUT THE AUTHORB. H. Fairchild, the author of several acclaimed poetry collections and a recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, has been a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the William Carlos Williams Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Bobbitt National Prize. He teaches in the creative writing PhD program at the University of North Texas.
BLURBS“The Art of the Lathe by B.H. Fairchild has become a contemporary classic—a passionate example of the plain style, so finely crafted and perfectly pitched. . . . Workhorse narratives suffused with tenderness and elegiac music. . .”
— Los Angeles Times
“With elegance and restrained subtlety, Mr. Fairchild interweaves topics that become something like musical themes, including the central theme of machine work. . . . Anyone who can lay claim to the authorship of this much excellent poetry wins my unqualified and grateful admiration.”
— Anthony Hecht
B. H. Fairchild
at VCP Poetry Series
video: Wayne Linberg
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