B. H. Fairchild in Santa Fe, New Mexico, February 2007 (Don J. Usner)

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.”

Fairchild, now in his eighties, has indeed drawn on the metalworking craft his father gifted him.


Fairchild returns to these concerns and characters in his most recent collection, An Ordinary Life. The collection’s first poem is spoken by Fairchild’s father, who is baffled and bemused by his poetry-studying collegiate son: “Handing me my hood as I leave for work, / he says, You’re medieval, a warrior, a knight / of the industrial order.” The father concludes, “It’s not poetry. But it’s what I do. / It’s what I have to pass along in case / his poet’s life proves not as lucrative / as he might like.” The father is both right and wrong. Fairchild, now in his eighties, has indeed drawn on the metalworking craft his father gifted him. Yet he did so by taking its virtues into the writing life and by showing that it is, in a sense, poetic. Another poem in the collection, “Revenge,” dramatizes an earlier stage in Fairchild’s relationship with his father, before any bemused acceptance of the poetic vocation. Here Fairchild’s father takes him on a brooding “Ford Falcon” ride to tell him to drop the poet act because his “fancy-assed, flowery language” does not “impress other men, serious men, for whom life / is a serious business.” The son begins to defiantly recite poetry, emboldened by the words and spirit of Dylan Thomas: “My poem, I swore, spoken loudly / and very well as my father stomped the floorboard / with every burning word, would never end.” Another poem in the collection, “The Watchmaker in the Rue Dauphine,” revisits the links between metalworking and other art forms. It begins with an ekphrastic description of Brassaï’s photograph of a boy watching the intricate work of a Parisian watchmaker through a shop window. It then turns to “a machine shop / in a small town in Kansas, where a boy / studies under lamplight the bruised hands / of his father measuring out the last cut.” The character Roy Garcia returns in this collection as well with a series of prose poems drawn from his journals.

Some of Fairchild’s other familiar influences and concerns recur in An Ordinary Life. Like his 2009 collection Usher, this newest collection features an Edward Hopper painting on its cover, an homage to what Fairchild’s aesthetic has drawn from Hopper’s lonely characters illumined by striking light. (See another great poem from The Art of the Lathe—“All the People in Hopper’s Paintings.”) The light that silhouettes, haloes, plays around, or glares on Fairchild’s characters can be melancholy or unflinching, even brutal, but it can also be tender, allowing for Hopper’s isolating loneliness to be overcome by the warm light of love. At times the light even overwhelms, like the searing neons of a welding torch’s arc or like a mystical vision, briefly transfiguring this “ordinary life” in all its achingly finite and beautiful forms, as with “the glass children” “filled with silver ripples of light” in one of An Ordinary Life’s prose poems. In these mystical flashes, we can see some lessons adapted from William Blake, another of Fairchild’s longtime guides.

This is not to say that the poems of An Ordinary Life are derivative of others or of Fairchild’s own earlier work. Fairchild draws fresh water from the well of memory, and his poetic voice is very much his own. This collection contains some of the best poems he has written. I was so moved by its first few poems that I had to set the book down after each one. “On the Sorrow God Pours into the Little Boat of Life” is a heart-wrenching poem about Fairchild’s grief in losing his son and about a stranger’s kindness amidst that sorrow—the “awful rowing toward God / in a hard rain” that life can often be. (The collection’s epigraph is from Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind to everyone you meet, for they are fighting a great battle.”) “My Mother, on Horseback, in a Blizzard” begins with a six-year-old child trying to make it home in a fierce plains snowstorm and ends with a woman waiting at a train station for her husband to return from the Pacific Theater of World War II. “Often the Dying Ask for a Map” is about Fairchild’s mother doing just that on her deathbed, drawing memories from the roads and place names. These poems feel expansive, but they are no longer than a page and a half. They are poems precisely wrought out of strong stuff, made to hold up over time. Fairchild is a master of the craft.

An Ordinary Life

B. H. Fairchild
W. W. Norton & Company
$26.95 | 72 pp.

Steven Knepper is Bruce C. Gottwald, Jr. ’81 Chair for Academic Excellence at Virginia Military Institute.

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Published in the October 2023 issue: View Contents
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