A Review of B.H. Fairchild’s Local Knowledge: Poems
by John Baalke
He would then lean back, light a cigarette, pour himself a cup of coffee, and breathe slowly in that easy, contented way of someone sure of his craft, pleased with his own expertise, confident that the thing was going well, that it was going to be a precise, skillful piece of work.
Fairchild is a craftsman, and as he readily admits, at the center of his craft is the image of the lathe. The lathe represents a way of being in the world and not talking. It is the place, that local place, which goes with him as he steps into experience, and into each poem. In “Child and Dwarf,” Fairchild spins (lathe-like) a scene around “a cylinder / of light breaking through the atrium.” And things within the poem are turned on Fairchild’s lathe as well: the dwarf “woman pauses, then begins circling // the Rodin,” the child’s “thin smile / curls to lift and draw her slowly / through the widening pool of light,” there is “blonde hair twisting down their spines,” the “[d]warf and child turn, to see,” “the sculpture / seems to move beneath a mass of shadows,” and “the great hands [are] grasping in the coiling air.” All become one “skillful piece of work” in Fairchild’s hands.
Again, in “There Is Constant Movement in My Head,” Fairchild reiterates the continuity of being, the sense that childhood, adolescence, and adulthood – all elements of one’s experience – are continually present in the being that is now; and the piece is not finished, it continues to spin on the lathe, and threads are being cut into it: “The mother / still beats time in her daughter’s head.” In the penultimate stanza, Fairchild’s narrator says:
There are movements I can’t forget: the cane
banging the floor, dancers like huge birds
struggling into flight, and overhead,
the choreography of silver cranes my mother
always watched when the wind blew down
from the sandhills and leaves fell on Nebraska.
There are things that stay with us; they are threaded into our being like metaphors in a poem. In “Child and Dwarf,” Fairchild makes this point beautifully as he writes: “Dwarf and child turn, then, to see, / eye to eye, the child that isn’t, / the child that is, the distortion // of the body, mind, and eye…” Certain things and experiences become distorted as they are dramatically drawn through perception into the work of one’s being. Not everything ends up here, but when symbols are attached in the first place, they are sure to serve as mnemonic devices later on. At the end of “There Is Constant Movement in My Head,” the narrator says, “This dance is the cane of my mother. / The dancers are birds that will never come down.”
In “Language, Nonsense, Desire,” Fairchild turns sophomore Spanish on the lathe of being. The scene is turned and the piece is shaped around the “languor of talk and coffee” as students watch a film called, “Conversacion Espanol.” There are three characters in the film that move around the lathe’s axis in a kind of triangulation or trinity. This seems to be a particular technique with Fairchild in a number of his poems. Here, Fairchild describes his trinity: “The speakers are three friends forever entangled / in the syntax of Spanish 101, fated to shape / loose chatter into harmonies of discourse, arias / of locus … and possession…” With the word “locus” comes Fairchild’s sense of place, that local knowledge of being that is carried forth into the world. This “loose chatter” is shaped into “harmonies” and “arias” on the lathe of language: “The hands of the speakers / are bright birds that lift and tremble among / the anomalies of ordinary life…” Fairchild refers to the film’s background as “the periphery of syllable / and gesture…” This is the lathe shop, the edge of the local world that is being; it is the seemingly nonsense material from which is shaped the skillful piece, the “end to speech and love.”
Fairchild’s craft has a certainty about it, a thread of luminosity. In “The Structures of Everyday Life,” Fairchild makes a connection between the everyday labor of man and the divine; the imago dei shines through, although thinly. From the very first line, the lathe shop becomes a cathedral: “In the shop’s nave, where the wind bangs sheets / of tin against iron beams…” When the grit of the day’s work is washed off, “hands lather and shine / in the light of one dim lamp,” and the foreman’s “wet hair gleams in the open door…” At the beginning of stanza four, one finds: “Gusts seep through tin, making the thin music / men live by.” Beauty is thin, but it is present nonetheless. This world is a dark place: “The ten-ton hoist drags its death chain. The sky / is a gray drum, a dull hunger only the plains know.” In the final stanza, one is in the cathedral again: “Like eremites at prayer, the men kneel to lace / their shoes…” And in the end, there is hope: “Each man shoulders the sun, / carries it through the fields, the lighted streets.”