During high school and college, I worked in a small-town hardware store. We sold the usual PVC fittings and drywall screws, receptacle covers and paintbrushes. Much of my work was the expected tasks. I unloaded delivery trucks, stocked shelves, and rang up customers. But the job also apprenticed me as a jack-of-all-trades. It called for at least a smattering of basic carpentry, plumbing, and electrical knowledge, as well as the ability to issue hunting and dog licenses, grind spare keys, mix paint, rescreen windows, and cut copper tubing without pinching the end closed.
The most technical of these odd jobs was threading steel pipe. When a customer ordered, say, four feet of inch-and-a-quarter galvanized, I swung open a trap door and descended rickety wooden steps into the store’s dirt-and-gravel basement, where a bare bulb threw dim light on the racks of pipe and the threading machine. The basement smelled sweet from the cutting oil. Curled metal shavings crunched underfoot around the machine. I would measure out the length of pipe, mark it with a piece of chalk, and hold it with a wrench with one hand while spinning the cutter with the other. Then I would lock the cut length in the chuck of the machine, flip the switch, and run both ends through the threading die while dousing them with oil. When all went well, the test coupling turned smoothly over the new threads, and I climbed the wooden steps toward the brighter light and the waiting customer, finished pipe in hand.
At the time I would have called threading pipe a satisfying task, one that required a peculiar mix of force and finesse. I doubt I would have called it beautiful, though. And even as an undergraduate English major reading Frost on my lunch break, I probably would not have called it poetic. The links between the practical crafts and poetry run deep. They are etymologically right there in poiesis (making) and ars (skilled craft). These links were not lost on me. Analogies between woodworking and poetry seemed very much “with the grain.” Yet metalworking, with its sharp edges, groaning motors, and industrial materials, did not seem as obviously poetic to the somewhat Romantic sensibilities of the younger me.
The scales fell from my eyes, however, when I first read B. H. Fairchild’s poems about the far more technical and precise metalworking of the midwestern machine shops where he worked in his youth and of his father’s welding work among the oilfields. I nodded my head when he praised the beauty in this work, despite its difficulty, danger, and dirtiness. Of course, most (though not all) of Fairchild’s machinists and welders do not call their work poetic or beautiful. At times they even scoff at those who do. This is the great theme of the first poem—“Beauty”—in Fairchild’s 1998 collection The Art of the Lathe. The poem begins in a Florence art museum, the Bargello, where the speaker’s pondering of beauty at first seems to contrast the beautiful sculptures with “the machine shop / and the dry fields of Kansas, the treeless horizons / of slate skies.” They are “very far” away from this Italian city. The distance between them is more than geographical. The speaker cannot recall the men of his family ever calling anything beautiful except maybe “a new pickup or dead deer.” The poem proceeds through anecdotes of frustration, crass ferocity, and small-mindedness. Yet it also evokes the intelligence, skill, and attention to detail called for in metalworking—and, of course, poetry. The poem ends with how the Florentine skyline, including its “great dome,” calls to the speaker’s mind “the metal roof of the machine shop,” which “would break into flame late on an autumn day, with such beauty.” The gaping distance has been traversed. The Art of the Lathe’s title poem even more explicitly brings out the “art” of the machinist’s work, in part by tracing its dignified history. “Leonardo imagined the first” lathe, we are told. The lathe receives an illustration in Diderot’s encyclopedia. The speaker himself is taught the lathe’s art by Roy Garcia, a recurring metalworker-philosopher in Fairchild’s poetry, who instructs via “Cautious, / almost delicate explanations and slow, / shapely hand movements. Craft by repetition.”