On what would have been my father’s 87th Birthday this poem by Robert Wrigley seems fitting. It captures something of the tension between the worlds of literary endeavour and the practical, literal workaday world ; a world with, as Wrigley writes, its own evocative vocabulary and moments of poetry:
My father loved every kind of machinery,
relished bearings, splines, windings, and cogs,
loved the tolerances between moving parts
and the parts that moved the parts,
the many separate machines of machinery.
Loved the punch, the awl, the ratchet, the pawl.
In-feed and out-feed rollers of the thickness planer,
its cutter head and cutters. The barrel and belt sanders,
the auger, capstan, windlass, and magneto.
Such a beautiful vocabulary in his work, words
he knew even if often he did not know
how they were spelled. Seals, risers, armatures.
Claw, ball-peen, sledge, dead-blow, mallet,
hammers all. Butt, mitered, half-lap,
tongue and groove; mortise and tenon,
biscuit, rabbet, dovetail, and box: all joints.
“A poem is a small (or large) machine
made of words,” said William Carlos Williams.
“To build the machine that makes the machine,”
said Elon Musk. Once my father repaired
a broken harpsichord but could not make it sing.
The chock, the bore, the chisel. He could hang a door,
rebuild an engine. Cylinders, pistons, and rings.
Shafts, crank and cam. Hand-cut notches
where the hinges sat. He loved the primary feathers
on the wings of a duck, extended and catching air,
catching also the tops of the whitecap waves
when it landed. Rods, valves, risers, and seals.
Ailerons and flaps, yaw control in the tail.
Machinery, machinery, machinery.
Four syllables in two iambic feet. A soft pulse.
Once I told him what Williams said,
he approached what I made with deeper interest
but no more understanding in the end.
The question he did not ask, that would have
embarrassed him to ask, the question I felt sure
he wanted to ask, the one I was too embarrassed
to ask for him, was “What does it do?”
Eventually the machine his body was broken,
and now it is gone, and the mechanically inclined
machine in his head is also gone,
and most of his tools. The machines that made
the machines are gone too, but for a few
I have kept in remembrance. A fine wood plane
but not the thickness planer, which I would not know
how to use. A variety of clamps I use to clamp
things needing clamping. Frost said
“poetry is the sort of thing poets write.” My father
thought it was the sort of thing I wrote,
but what mattered to him was what it did.
What does it do, and what is it?
A widget that resists conclusions.
A crank that turns a wheel
that turns. A declaration of truth
by a human being running at full speed
in a race with no one, toward nowhere
except away from the beginning and toward arrival.
Once my father watched the snow
and noted how landing on the earth it melted.
He said, “It’s snow that doesn’t know it’s rain.”