John Casteen


Mark Turpin
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 need—for intuitive expertise, for intimate knowledge, for skill which ennobles human activity—is 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, "Illiterate, banal, … impersonal… frustrated…"[from "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 jobsite—whose language, smells, irregular rhythms and lexicon permeate Hammer—is 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 they mean.

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?

                                          ("Jobsite Wind")


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 the whole… 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

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")

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."


© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review