Sarabande Books, July 2003
ISBN 1-889330-85-X (cloth), $20.95
1-889330-86-8 (paper), $12.95
"Dear god / one needs to be an expert now," according to one
in "A Carpenter's Body" from Mark Turpin's debut collection,
Hammer. That explicit needfor intuitive expertise, for
intimate knowledge, for skill which ennobles human activityis
central to the author's poetics, and appears to be his answer to Stevens'
charge that the modern poem find what will suffice; this is an engaging,
lucid and textured book, and one whose novelty (Turpin himself is a
carpenter by trade) is far outweighed by its ambition.
Turpin's approach to his subject is largely unromantic, and many readers
of these poems may find themselves abruptly disabused of some common
assumptions about the nobility of the trades (at worst, for example,
"Shithouse," ellipses mine]). It is as much a myth that tradespeople
love toil as that lawyers love justice; Turpin's voice is appealing
in that he is simultaneously infatuated with and suspicious of the work
that occasions so much of this book. It speaks from a nuanced relationship
to a body of knowledge with which the author, and probably not the reader,
is consummately familiar.
What Turpin takes from the jobsitewhose language, smells, irregular
rhythms and lexicon permeate Hammeris an aural and referential
code of ethics, which is indispensable to his poetics. Much depends
on metaphors drawn from the housewright's materials and processes. In
describing, for example, in "Gene Lance," frame-carpenters
working with framing lumber sold by the mill before it was adequately
dried for use:
Wood so green the yardman said
he saw a 2x4 take root.
Joists spat into their faces as they
flew their commons in.
The rebuke implied by the image has real consequences in the real world:
"green" lumber shrinks and twists when exposed to air, often
changing the dimensions or alignment of the assembly for which it has
been used. It is soft, thus easy to cut and nail (with "commons,"
as opposed to sinkers or other nails), but it represents haste on the
part of the dealer and of the builder, and an unhealthy compromise between
the dictates of commerce and of workmanship. The material is reminding
the maker that he can't serve God and mammon, and that he has made a
choice with which he and others must live; by this and similar mechanisms
Turpin explicates the sometimes amusing, sometimes didactic, and sometimes
existentially terrifying relationship between what things are and what
His cosmology is nearly omnipresent, but pervades the book without
hobbling it. The lines above, for instance, make music and sense even
if one can't or doesn't parse them completely in context; one understands
that the lumber is so wet that droplets of water spring from it when
nailed. Turpin's reader doesn't need a vocational education, just
as Faulkner's reader doesn't need a biblical concordance. It's true
that there exists a layer of meaning that will be more or less available
to readers with varying degrees of exposure to house-carpentry, but
it isn't the only layer (or, I would argue, the most important). The
strongest work here ("The Box," "Waiting for Lumber,"
"In Winter," "Jobsite Wind") explains its subject
only as far as necessary; in describing the discipline, and maybe
the metaphysics, of ditch-digging, he says:
The hardest part is not to let the rhythm fail,
like stopping too often to remeasure the depth, stalling
in the shithouse, losing self-respect, or beginning to doubt:
Am I cutting too wide? Is the line still straight?
Or thinking of backhoes, more help, quibbling inches
with the boss.
What's at stake is an idiosyncratic and earned conception of the self
moving through an only partially comprehensible world, using the act
of making as a metaphor which helps place the speaker/reader in a larger
and redemptive context.
The essential challenge Turpin sets before himself has to do with
balancing closeness to subject with objectivity, and with variety of
experience. He must write inclusively enough that the reader feels there
is more to be learned or enjoyed after the first few poems about the
predicaments of blue-collar life as he has experienced it. It's not
that he writes about nothing else; he does. There are excellent poems
about sexual love ("Aubade"), fatherhood ("In Winter,"
"Will Turpin b. 1987"), and disaster ("The Aftermath").
It's that his relationship to the world of people, or the world of ideas,
is suffused with the aforementioned code of ethics derived from "The
World of Things." In order for the poems to succeed, this code
must be transparent; it must have been completely internalized, entirely
processed during the long stretches of contemplative time afforded by
repetitive manual work. Thus:
...watching my hand hammering
in rhythm to my breath, the world hidden
beyond the nailhead's own demands
while inside a focused stillness intact and undisturbed
also incessant asked Who am I? Why this action?
What is this place I am in?
The least of these poems lack the critical distance from their subject
that characterizes the best, and the majority. This is a good problem
for a book to have, since it is part and parcel of the act of writing
poems that are (thankfully) not preoccupied with the self-involved
late-century concerns so prevalent in much work of the last fifteen
years. (I'm reminded of Heidi Julavits' excellent essay, in the first
issue of The Believer,
on the current state of criticism; she says, "Ambition is not
the sort of thing that American critics are terribly partial to, on
To me, 'ambitious' implies the hopeful act of over-reaching
Ambition rarely yields perfection,
when the shortcomings resulting
from bland underachievement slide by without notice.") These
poems are not anti-intellectual, and certainly not ignorant of the
issues ("sincerity," authorship, accessibility) they raise;
simply, they refuse to be cowed by those issues. Their legitimacy,
their relevance, is rooted in the intimate knowledge of subject that
brings them into existence. Turpin is merely a carpenter-poet only
in the sense that Roethke is merely a nurseryman-poet; he appears
not limited to or by the material world for which he has such a clear
and abiding affection. Another kinship to Roethke: he has an excellent
ear, and seems to have a real affinity for the enjambed line. The
effect is measured, and fruitful, as in "When I lived with her,
I never thought about my daughter / during the day, while I worked
("In Winter"), or
Obviously there exists an understanding of the world that correlates
to any particular body of knowledge; automotive mechanics have a certain
shared perspective, as do gamblers, professors of literature, and surgeons.
That's as it should be; shop talk is constructive, if difficult to penetrate
from the outside. The lucky thing for Hammer is that its author
has cultivated an ability to extrapolate from the immediate, the quotidian
and the personal to the transformative. The sum of those extrapolations,
as he says, "reminds me / that to labor is a spiritual condition."
I know you, girl, like one of mine, how
you know each of them: particular
but not personal"the stupid one, lame
in the left forefoot" or "the one who hates
the gate." Your back turned to everything.
And why shouldn't it be? You know all
the shades of fleece.
("Millet's Shepherdess with her Flock")