Poem: The Workman and His Tools

Raymond Ball and Ralph Ball
He Knew the Worth of Tools

He was a man who knew the worth of tools.
How having just the right one for the job
Was worth a lot, but clearly not as much
As knowing what to do with ones you had,
And what to do with tools he surely knew.

When just a boy on a Missouri farm,
He started hanging round the blacksmith shop
Whenever he could catch a ride to town.
Old Henry Ford’s new-fangled auto car
Had sparked a need for handy fix-it men.
He joined the revolution, then and there,
Brought by the horseless carriage on the land,
And learned mechanics on a Model T.
He mastered use of wrenches and of pliers,
Learned lessons he would use for decades hence.

To make it through the Great Depression’s dearth
He took whatever labor he could find.
He hoed bean rows and stripped bluegrass by hand,
With just the simplest tools to do the job.
His daily wage back then was just a buck,
But any honest work beat none at all.
To earn his daily bread he tilled the soil
Just like his male ancestors all before.

But he saw tools of farming changing too,
With tractors putting horses out of work.
He gambled on a combine harvester
That reaped and threshed and winnowed all at once.
Then hiring out his cutting-edge machine,
He saved enough to buy his own small farm,
And one by one he added to his tools.

In time he sold the farm and moved to town
To try his hand in the commercial world.
Still very much a Ford man in his heart,
He bought a dealership of farm machines—
The boldest speculation of his life.
But business wasn’t really his strong suit,
And when it failed, he carried on with tools.

He built a practice fixing implements —
Hay balers, corn pickers, tractors — all repaired
Right where they’d broken down out in the field.
And farmers round about began to say,
“If Ray can’t make her run she can’t be fixed.”

When he was well past sixty years of age
He got a crazy notion in his head—
He’d always dreamed of having his own shop—
So he measured out the plan in the back yard.
And there he built the thing all by himself
With salvaged lumber gotten almost free.
Of course, it looked just like a barn.
Because, well, that’s only thing that he’d built before.
But he knew well enough the tools required.
Beneath his hammer, nails sunk into boards
With just two strokes, or maybe three.
His singing handsaw made the sawdust fly.
His level, plane and plumb line kept all true.
Out of a worthless demolition pile
He fashioned form where there was none before.
His barn still stands though many years have passed.
With paint and care could stand for many more.
It needs someone with tools to care again.

And when his wife of more than fifty years
Grew absent minded and began to fail,
He looked in vain for tools to fix her with.
Installed a cook-stove, gas-line, shut-off valve
When she began to start forgetting things,
Like if she’d turned the burners on or off.
Nowhere on all his cluttered workshop shelves
Was there a tool to fix her slipping mind.
The final years he’d visit every day
Ensuring that she ate her rest home meal.
The only tool of any use a spoon.
In time, the spoon was of no use as well.

My work today requires different tools.
I toil in neither soil nor wood nor stone.
Instead of grease my hands are stained with ink.
I polish common syllables to rhyme.
I calibrate my words to find a song,
Fine tuning—like a carburetor—lines,
To make them run not either rich nor lean,
To purr and roar without the gassy fumes,
Obscuring sense and choking with the smoke.

My father’s tools lie idle on the bench.
The workman will not use them anymore.
With all the craftsmanship I can bestow,
I carry on instead with tools I know.

(2019)


I’ve been reading a lot of Robert Frost this year. He was a modern master of blank verse and all of that exposure is bound to have some influence on me. I can only hope some of the music rubs off on me.

Back in May, I took a stab at blank verse and it seemed to work out okay. So here is another in the same vein.

The workman in this poem is my father. I am living proof that mechanical aptitude is not hereditary.

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Poem for Mother’s Day, in Defiance of Alzheimer’s

Mother holding me in 1952

She Knew the Names of Things

She knew the names of things, knew them by heart.
Not just the farmwife flowers of the yard,
But the wild ones in the hidden woods.
And in the woods, she knew the names of trees.
She knew quaint sayings about country ways.
“That’s no sign of a duck’s nest,” she would say,
Defying explanation even then.

She knew the names of birds, common and rare:
The Red Wing, Meadow Lark and Mourning Dove,
Brown Thrush and Gold Finch and sad Whippoorwill.
She knew them by their call as well as sight.

She knew the names of lonely widowed aunts,
And she knew dates and anniversaries,
And surely, she recalled that doleful day
When the son who called her “Mother” was fished
By divers out of San Diego Bay.
For grief, she never spoke of it again.

And though she’d barely gone to school, she
Had sense enough to hang a dishrag up,
She knew her Whitman and her Bible well.
And when the door-yard Lilacs bloomed she paused
Amidst the sweet perfume, breathed, and recalled
The poem and soft fragrance that she loved,
Sweet messenger of spring—but not too sweet,
Not like the syrupy Petunias
That she also loved, but differently.
She always favored the modest flowers
That had a tinge of tragedy and loss
Like Lilacs and Lillies of the Valley,
Named for the suffering Savior of mankind.
She knew the things she loved, and she could name them.

But winter of the mind came drifting in
And names of things were slowly covered up,
As when the snow erases hue and shape
And leaves the garden white, formless and blank.

The soaring Hollyhocks were overcome,
Begonias, Honeysuckle, Marigolds,
The Morning Glories high atop the gate
Were covered, as was Aunt Minerva, too,
(Whom she loved like the mother she had lost),
And cousin Gene undone at Normandy,
And buried there amidst a cross-white field.

Peonies bowed their heavy heads beneath
The heavy snow and disappeared away.
So too, the old folks’ graves that she adorned
With their bouquets each Decoration Day.

Wild Lady Slipper too did not escape,
Entombed beneath its own soft shroud of white
With Buttercup, Catalpa, Trumpet Vine,
With Thistle, Jimsonweed and Columbine.
And covered too were Maples, Elms and Oaks,
The Willow tree we started from a branch,
The stately Cottonwood that soared above
The old farm woods, completely covered up.

And covered too were barefoot childhood days
On Clear Creek growing up carefree, before
Her still-young mother died of Spanish Flu,
And left five other kids for her to raise.
Those days she loved them, and she knew their names:
Hayward, Walden (though others called him Joe)
Jesse, Vivian, and the youngest Bill.
All these names buried and forgotten now.

Gone was her motto written out longhand
Held by a magnet to the old icebox
With wise and frugal counsel: “Use it up
Wear it out. Make it do, or do without.”

Old photographs stuck in a musty book
Assembled even as the blizzard blew,
A vain attempt to thwart the mounting snow,
The names obliterated anyway
By endless pitiless nameless white.

I walk now through the fiery leaves of fall
And ponder piles of faded photographs,
Repeating names I learned so long ago,
Recalling things and places I have loved

In hopes this recitation will forestall
My own impending blanketing of snow.
Perhaps my winter will be mild—or not.
Perhaps I will become snowbound as well.

But I shall say the names of things ’til then
And recall her who taught them first to me.
Remembering, turn my face to winter’s blast,
Defying it to dare to land a blow.
For I shall sing the names of things until
I lie here frozen stiff beneath the snow.


(2019)

NOTES: The poems I learned at my mother’s knee employed meter and rhyme. So it’s only natural that I’m most comfortable with forms like ballads and sonnets. They speak my heart language. I’ve long agreed with Robert Frost that writing in free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. It may do wonders for the self esteem, but it’s hardly sporting.

But lately, I’ve had the itch to write something longer than a sonnet, or something more ambitious than eight lines of rhyming couplets. After digging around, I settled on blank verse, which sticks with meter, but dispenses with the need for thyme. Sort of like playing tennis with the net lowered a couple of feet. I suppose if it was good enough for Marlowe and Shakespeare, it should be good enough for me.

My mother died several years ago after a protracted siege of some type of dementia. It may have been Alzheimer’s Disease, but it was likely some other variant because it dragged out longer than usual for that particular form of dementia. We never had a formal diagnosis.

I hope the poem speaks for itself and provides a fitting tribute for Mother’s Day.

P.S. Extra note for poetry nerds: The last 14 lines came the easiest for me. Only when they were completed did I realize that they were almost a sonnet. However, the lines were not rhyming, except for one rhyme at the end. I guess old habits are hard to break.

 

Poem Against Alzheimer’s

My mom as a young mother

Ice Age

Dear gentle woman grown so early old,
You’ve all but left us on our lonesome own.
Now after many years to spirit sown,
A creeping glacier scrapes your memory cold.

You, greener days ago, recited verse,
And planted hardy seeds of simple song
That rooted deep, perennial and strong,
To flourish in the shadow of the hearse.

Today your weathered hands no longer know
The jonquil from the mum, nor how to weed.
Today you prattle on without the seed
Of sense, that for so long you toiled to grow.

So now for you I pick this small bouquet
Out of the garden patch you used to tend,
Now choked with worldly weeds from end to end,
In need of hands to cultivate its clay.


NOTES:  This month, my mother would have been 106 years old.  She died nearly 30 years ago, but she began to leave us several years before that as she fell under the spell of some type of dementia.

She was my first poetic champion, instilling a love for poetry from an early age.  This poem was written back when she was still alive, but unable to communicate with us.

So, let me say that I hate Alzheimer’s and all its ilk.

I recently paid the fee and spit in a test tube to have my DNA read by the smart folks at 23andme.  I learned that I do not have the classic Alzheimer’s gene, so there is some good news there.

But I am well aware that no man knows his time and we’re all going to die of something.

I had a brother who joked he wanted to die at age 100 being shot by a jealous husband.  He didn’t quite make it, though through no lack of effort on his part.

I can think of a lot of better ways to go than wasting away for years after having lost your mind.

Mother was forced to drop out of grade school when her mother died in a flu epidemic.  She was needed at home to care for her younger brothers and sister.

Her tastes were simple and traditional, with a leaning towards folksy American poets, like James Whitcomb Riley and St. Joseph’s own Eugene Field.  But she also like Robert Frost and Wordsworth.

We really only had one book of poetry in the house, a leather-bound volume entitled One Hundred and One Famous Poems, published in 1929. It contained remarkably robust collection of poems, and she read them aloud to me often.

There were selections from Shakespeare, Emerson, Poe, Kipling, Byron, Keats, and even Whitman.  In the back of the book were some bonus classics of English prose including the Gettysburg Address, the Magna Charta, the Ten Commandments, and the Declaration of Independence.

I daresay, I got a better education from that one book than I received in four years attending a semi-prestigious liberal arts college during the self-absorbed 1970s.

Mother’s Day Poem

My first poetic champion

ICE AGE

Dear gentle woman grown so early old,
You’ve all but left us on our lonesome own.
Now after many years to spirit sown,
A creeping glacier scrapes your memory cold.

You, greener days ago, recited verse,
And planted hardy seeds of simple song
That rooted deep, perennial and strong,
To flourish in the shadow of the hearse.

Today your weathered hands no longer know
The jonquil from the mum, nor how to weed.
Today you prattle on without the seed
Of sense, that for so long you toiled to grow.

So now for you I pick this small bouquet,
Out of the garden patch you used to tend,
Now choked with worldly weeds from end to end,
In need of hands to cultivate its clay.


NOTES:

My mother loved poetry.  Her own mother died when she was just a girl, so she dropped out of school to help raise her younger siblings.  She never got to go to high school, but she loved the music of English words artfully strung together.

She read the American classics of the time: Wordsworth, Emerson, Eugene Field, and even that new fellow, Frost.  Some of my earliest memories are of her reading to me from “The Duel” (aka “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,”) “Lil’ Boy Blue,” and “Hiawatha.”

She filled a buffet drawer scraps of paper bearing homespun verse she had copied by hand, or clipped from the pages of Capper’s Weekly.  After her death, I found her Bible.  It was worn out and held together at the spine with pieces of packing tape.  Tucked amongst the hand-scrawled Bible verses and sermon notes was a tiny piece of paper where she had written this fragment from John Greenleaf Whittier:

Of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest of these, it might have been

In her 70s, Mother began a long, slow journey with Alzheimer’s.  At first we thought she was just getting forgetful, but, in time, we realized she was losing her faculties.  She forgot names and nouns.

Early on, she devised clever strategies to trick us into helping her fill in the missing blanks.  “I’m going to the, um, you know,” she would offer, hoping one of us would bail her out by supplying “the A&P,” or the name of some other destination that had eluded her.

But, in time, she lost the ability to play Guess the Word with anyone.  She slipped away from us and never came back, even though she lived for years neither speaking nor, as far as we could tell, understanding anything spoken to her.  She lived so long probably due to some diligent care at the county nursing home in our small Missouri town, and to the fact my father visited her every day and spoon fed her lunch.

I wrote her a poem, which I read at her funeral.