“The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano,” by B. H. Fairchild from The Art of the Lathe
I love this poem from B. H. Fairchild's 1998 The Art of the Lathe. When I read it, I get chills--goose-bumps always tell me something more is up than I can know.
For me, in such a deep way, this poem describes my father--his delicacy, his competence, his depth and no-need-to-speak-it kinship with spirit. For me, in such a deep way, this poem describes my relationship with my father--his tenderness, his wish to teach me both music and how to make, fix, and do practical things with my hands.
We lived in a world of manual labor, muddy boots and overalls in my childhood...but, we also lived in a world where we practiced classical music on the piano and sang songs together everywhere we drove in the car if my father was in that car. I am so moved, as I read this poem, to have the heart of my childhood and our family culture so well known and described.
The brown wrist and hand with its raw knuckles and blue nails
packed with dirt and oil, pause in mid-air, the fingers arched delicately,
and she mimics him, hand held just so, the wrist loose,
then swooping down to the wrong chord.
She lifts her hand and tries again.
Drill collars rumble, hammering the nubbin-posts.
The helper lifts one, turning it slowly,
then lugs it into the lathe’s chuck.
The bit shears the dull iron into new metal, falling
into the steady chant of lathe work,
and the machinist lights a cigarette, holding
in his upturned palms the polonaise he learned at ten,
then later the easiest waltzes,
etudes, impossible counterpoint
like the voice of his daughter he overhears one night
standing in the backyard. She is speaking
to herself but not herself, as in prayer,
the listener is some version of herself,
and the names are pronounced carefully,
self-consciously: Chopin, Mozart,
Scarlatti., . . . these gestures of voice and hands
suspended over the keyboard
that move like the lathe in its turning
toward music, the wind dragging the hoist chain, the ring
of iron on iron in the holding rack.
His daughter speaks to him one night,
but not to him, rather someone created between them,
a listener, there and not there,
a master of lathes, a student of music.
Alice James' books says, "B.H. Fairchild’s The Art of the Lathe (1998) is a collection of poems covering a wide range of subjects, though it centers on the working-class world of the Midwest, the isolations of small-town life, and the possibilities and occasions of beauty and grace among the machine shops and oil fields of rural Kansas."
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