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poemoftheweek poem of the week



B. H. Fairchild




     Their sons grow suicidally beautiful. . . 

-James Wright, "Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry, Ohio"


We are at the Bargello in Florence, and she says, 
what are you thinking? and I say, beauty, thinking 
of how very far we are now from the machine shop
and the dry fields of Kansas, the treeless horizons 
of slate skies and the muted passions of roughnecks 
and scrabble farmers drunk and romantic enough 
to weep more or less silently at the darkened end 
of the bar out of, what else, loneliness, meaning 
the ache of thwarted desire, of, in a word, beauty, 
or rather its absence, and it occurs to me again 
that no male member of my family has ever used 
this word in my hearing or anyone else's except 
in reference, perhaps, to a new pickup or dead deer.
This insight, this backward vision, first came to me 
as a young man as some weirdness of the air waves 
slipped through the static of our new Motorola 
with a discussion of beauty between Robert Penn Warren 
and Paul Weiss at Yale College. We were in Kansas 
eating barbecue-flavored potato chips and waiting 
for Father Knows Best to float up through the snow
of rural TV in 1963. I felt transported, stunned. 
Here are two grown men discussing "beauty" 
seriously and with dignity as if they and the topic 
were as normal as normal topics of discussion 
between men such as soybean prices or why 
the commodities market was a sucker's game 
or Oklahoma football or Gimpy Neiderland 
almost dying from his hemorrhoid operation. 
They were discussing beauty and tossing around 
allusions to Plato and Aristotle and someone 
named Pater, and they might be homosexuals. 
That would be a natural conclusion, of course, 
since here were two grown men talking about "beauty"
instead of scratching their crotches and cursing 
the goddamned government trying to run everybody's 
business. Not a beautiful thing, that. The government. 
Not beautiful, though a man would not use that word. 
One time my Uncle Ross from California called my mom's 
Sunday dinner centerpiece "lovely" and my father 
left the room, clearly troubled by the word "lovely" 
coupled probably with the very idea of California 
and the fact that my Uncle Ross liked to tap-dance. 
The light from the venetian blinds, the autumn, 
silver Kansas light laving the table that Sunday, 
is what I recall now because it was beautiful, 
though I of course would not have said so then, beautiful, 
as so many moments forgotten but later remembered 
come back to us in slants and pools and uprisings of light, 
beautiful in itself, but more beautiful mingled 
with memory, the light leaning across my mother's 
carefully set table, across the empty chair 
beside my Uncle Ross, the light filtering down 
from the green plastic slats in the roof of the machine shop 
where I worked with my father so many afternoons, 
standing or crouched in pools of light and sweat with men 
who knew the true meaning of labor and money and other 
hard, true things and did not, did not ever, use the word, beauty.



Late November, shadows gather in the shop's north end, 
and I'm watching Bobby Sudduth do piece work on the Hobbs. 
He fouls another cut, motherfucker, fucking bitch machine, 
and starts over, sloppy, slow, about two joints away 
from being fired, but he just doesn't give a shit. 
He sets the bit again, white wrists flashing in the lamplight 
and showing botched, blurred tattoos, both from a night 
in Tijuana, and continues his sexual autobiography, 
that's right, fucked my own sister, and I'll tell you, bud, 
it wasn't bad. Later, in the Phillipines, the clap: 
as far as I'm concerned, any man who hasn't had V.D. 
just isn't a man. I walk away, knowing I have just heard 
the dumbest remark ever uttered by man or animal. 
The air around me hums in a dark metallic bass, 
light spilling like grails of milk as someone opens 
the mammoth shop door. A shrill, sullen truculence 
blows in like dust devils, the hot wind nagging 
my blousy overalls, and in the sideyard the winch truck 
backfires and stalls. The sky yellows. Barn sparrows cry 
in the rafters. That afternoon in Dallas Kennedy is shot.

Two weeks later sitting around on rotary tables 
and traveling blocks whose bearings litter the shop floor 
like huge eggs, we close our lunch boxes and lean back 
with cigarettes and watch smoke and dust motes rise and drift 
into sunlight. All of us have seen the newscasts, 
photographs from Life, have sat there in our cavernous rooms, 
assassinations and crowds flickering over our faces, 
some of us have even dreamed it, sleeping through 
the TV's drone and flutter, seen her arm reaching 
across the lank body, black suits rushing in like moths, 
and the long snake of the motorcade come to rest, 
then the announcer's voice as we wake astonished in the dark. 
We think of it now, staring at the tin ceiling like a giant screen, 
what a strange goddamned country, as Bobby Sudduth 
arches a wadded Fritos bag at the time clock and says, 
Oswald, from that far, you got to admit, that shot was a beauty.



The following summer. A black Corvette gleams like a slice 
of onyx in the sideyard, driven there by two young men 
who look like Marlon Brando and mention Hollywood 
when Bobby asks where they're from. The foreman, my father, 
has hired them because we're backed up with work, both shop 
and yard strewn with rig parts, flat-bed haulers rumbling 
in each day lugging damaged drawworks, and we are desperate. 
The noise is awful, a gang of roughnecks from a rig 
on down-time shouting orders, our floor hands knee-deep 
in the drawwork's gears heating the frozen sleeves and bushings 
with cutting torches until they can be hammered loose. 
The iron shell bangs back like a drum-head. Looking 
for some peace, I walk onto the pipe rack for a quick smoke, 
and this is the way it begins for me, this memory, 
this strangest of all memories of the shop and the men 
who worked there, because the silence has come upon me 
like the shadow of cranes flying overhead as they would 
each autumn, like the quiet and imperceptible turning 
of a season, the shop has grown suddenly still here 
in the middle of the workday, and I turn to look 
through the tall doors where the machinists stand now 
with their backs to me, the lathes whining down together,
and in the shop's center I see them standing in a square 
of light, the two men from California, as the welders 
lift their black masks, looking up, and I see their faces first, 
the expressions of children at a zoo, perhaps, 
or after a first snow, as the two men stand naked, 
their clothes in little piles on the floor as if they 
are about to go swimming, and I recall how fragile 
and pale their bodies seemed against the iron and steel 
of the drill presses and milling machines and lathes. 
I did not know the word, exhibitionist, then, and so 
for a moment it seemed only a problem of memory, 
that they had forgotten somehow where they were, 
that this was not the locker room after the game, 
that they were not taking a shower, that this was not 
the appropriate place, and they would then remember, 
and suddenly embarrassed, begin shyly to dress again. 
But they did not, and in memory they stand frozen 
and poised as two models in a drawing class, 
of whom the finished sketch might be said, though not by me 
nor any man I knew, to be beautiful, they stand there 
forever, with the time clock ticking behind them, 
time running on but not moving, like the white tunnel 
of silence between the snap of the ball and the thunderclap 
of shoulder pads that never seems to come and then 
there it is, and I hear a quick intake of breath 
on my right behind the Hobbs and it is Bobby Sudduth 
with what I think now was not just anger but a kind 
of terror on his face, an animal wildness 
in the eyes and the jaw tight, making ropes in his neck 
while in a long blur with his left hand raised and gripping 
an iron file he is moving toward the men who wait 
attentive and motionless as deer trembling in a clearing, 
and instantly there is my father between Bobby 
and the men as if he were waking them after a long sleep, 
reaching out to touch the shoulder of the blonde one 
as he says in a voice almost terrible in its gentleness, 
its discretion, you boys will have to leave now. 
He takes one look at Bobby who is shrinking back 
into the shadows of the Hobbs, then walks quickly back 
to his office at the front of the shop, and soon 
the black Corvette with the orange California plates 
is squealing onto Highway 54 heading west into the sun.



So there they are, as I will always remember them, 
the men who were once fullbacks or tackles or guards 
in their three-point stances knuckling into the mud, 
hungry for highschool glory and the pride of their fathers, 
eager to gallop terribly against each other's bodies, 
each man in his body looking out now at the nakedness 
of a body like his, men who each autumn had followed 
their fathers into the pheasant-rich fields of Kansas 
and as boys had climbed down from the Allis-Chalmers 
after plowing their first straight furrow, licking the dirt 
from their lips, the hand of the father resting lightly 
upon their shoulder, men who in the oven-warm winter 
kitchens of Baptist households saw after a bath the body 
of the father and felt diminished by it, who that same 
winter in the abandoned schoolyard felt the odd intimacy 
of their fist against the larger boy's cheekbone 
but kept hitting, ferociously, and walked away 
feeling for the first time the strength, the abundance, 
of their own bodies. And I imagine the men 
that evening after the strangest day of their lives, 
after they have left the shop without speaking 
and made the long drive home alone in their pickups,
I see them in their little white frame houses on the edge 
of town adrift in the long silence of the evening turning 
finally to their wives, touching without speaking the hair 
which she has learned to let fall about her shoulders 
at this hour of the night, lifting the white nightgown 
from her body as she in turn unbuttons his work shirt 
heavy with the sweat and grease of the day's labor until 
they stand naked before each other and begin to touch 
in a slow choreography of familiar gestures their bodies, 
she touching his chest, his hand brushing her breasts, 
and he does not say the word "beautiful" because 
he cannot and never has, and she does not say it 
because it would embarrass him or any other man 
she has ever known, though it is precisely the word 
I am thinking now as I stand before Donatello's David 
with my wife touching my sleeve, what are you thinking? 
and I think of the letter from my father years ago 
describing the death of Bobby Sudduth, a single shot 
from a twelve-gauge which he held against his chest, 
the death of the heart, I suppose, a kind of terrible beauty, 
as someone said of the death of Hart Crane, though that is 
surely a perverse use of the word, and I was stunned then, 
thinking of the damage men will visit upon their bodies, 
what are you thinking? she asks again, and so I begin 
to tell her about a strange afternoon in Kansas, 
about something I have never spoken of, and we walk 
to a window where the shifting light spreads a sheen 
along the casement, and looking out, we see the city 
blazing like miles of uncut wheat, the farthest buildings 
taken in their turn, and the great dome, the way 
the metal roof of the machine shop, I tell her, 
would break into flame late on an autumn day, with such beauty.


-from The Art of the Lathe

BIO: B.H. Fairchild was born in 1942 in Houston, Texas, and grew up in small towns in Texas and Kansas. The son of a lathe operator, he attended the University of Kansas and the University of Tulsa. His poetry explores the empty landscapes of the region of his birth, and the lives of its working-class residents, including his own family and friends. Frequently described as a poet of the “sacred,” Fairchild’s work has gained renown for its marriage of high and low culture and art, as well as its interest in evoking beauty in quotidian memories and events. According to Paul Mariani, “Like William Carlos WilliamsJames Wright, and James Dickey, all writing in the American grain, [Fairchild] insist[s] on the beauty to be found in what seems to be a desolate landscape.” Fairchild’s books of poetry include The Arrival of the Future (1985; reissued 2000); The Art of the Lathe (1998), which received the Beatrice Hawley Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award; Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest (2004), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the California Book Award, and the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry; Local Knowledge (2005); and Usher: Poems (2009). Fairchild has also written a critical study on the poetry of William Blake, Such Holy Song: Music as Idea, Form, and Image in the Poetry of William Blake (1980).
Reviewing Usher in the Los Angeles Times, David Ulin declared Fairchild, “one of those poets prose readers love: Meaty, maximalist, driven by narrative, he stakes out an American mythos in which the personal and the collective blur.” Fairchild’s carefully wrought narratives include moments of ecstatic revelation, often by bringing typically American themes and locales into juxtaposition with “high” art. Barbara Berman in the Rumpus noted that Usher’s title poem contains “references to Gene Kelly, Milk Duds. Kierkegaard and other signifiers of popular, intellectual and religious culture is equally inventive proof of Fairchild’s risk-taking. Gritty meets exalted and gets the shadows just right.”

Fairchild himself spoke to the intersection of physical labor, memory, and his development as a poet in an interview with Mariani: “One of the most important transitions for me, psychological or otherwise, was the gradual, halting movement out of the physical world of work into the world of art and literature and ideas. Very often, especially in my later teens and early twenties, I was existing in both worlds at the same time, watching a welder lay down a perfect seam while Madame Bovary was walking around in my head, or observing the gleam of a freshly shaped and honed piece of stock while remembering the arc of a Brancusi sculpture. I don’t ‘insist’ upon beauty being found in strange, overlooked places; that’s just the way it seems to emerge in many of my poems. Nobody could be more surprised at this than I am. I did not have a talent for machine work and could not wait to escape that little town, at least for nine months, to the world of the university. But that town is where my mind seems to locate the startling fact of beauty. And the stranger the circumstances or source of beauty, the more authentic it seems to me.”
Fairchild has received numerous honors and awards for his work, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He is the recipient of the William Carlos Williams Award, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Aiken Taylor Award, the Arthur Rense Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the PEN Center USA West Poetry Award, among others. His work appears widely and he has taught at numerous institutions. He is currently a professor of English at the University of North Texas.

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