Over the past few years I have bought at least a half-dozen copies of B.H. Fairchild‘s book The Art of the Lathe and given them to folks. A quick scan of my bookshelves shows that I need to buy a couple more copies as I am out once again. I picked the book of poetry up the first time because of the title and my earlier life as a machinist. Although I enjoyed lathes, my favorite type of equipment to run was the horizontal boring mill. The creative possibilities were endless. NC and CNC automated processes changed all that. My last industrial job at the General Electric Jet Engine plant in Cincinnati, Ohio consisted of loading parts, pushing a button, and watching the machine run. I became incredibly bored. Nearly 30 years ago, I finally earned my B.A. and then quit the job at GE and went to graduate school. I have often wondered if the “machinist” occupation had not been largely replaced with computers, would I have even gone to school, gotten my doctorate in Anthropology and moved into a new career.
Fairchild captures so much of the beauty, the sounds, the smells, the very essence of creation of music and metal. The Machinist Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano is pure magic.
The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano
by B.H. Fairchild
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.