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Poet's Sampler: Mark Turpin

MARK TURPIN is a poet of unusual gifts. His work is as likely to recall Thomas Hardy as William Carlos Williams. He has the best kind of technical mastery, the kind that enables him to be direct. I find that his poems can make me gasp at their accuracy, yet he never seems to be trying to impress or merely dazzle. Mark Turpin's poems often take the craft of carpentry, his profession, as their narrative locale; but this is like saying that George Herbert often writes about a church. Turpin is a meditative and social poet whose real subject is the connection between one person and another -- sometimes, between one person and all others. His material is not local color, but the universal, and the building trades are presented not as exotic but for their likeness to the rest of life. --Robert Pinsky


The Box

When I see driven nails I think of the hammer and the hand,
his mood, the weather, the time of year, what he packed
for lunch, how built up was the house,
the neighborhood, could he see another job from here?

And where was the lumber stacked, in what closet
stood the nail kegs, where did the boss unroll
the plans, which room was chosen for lunch? And where
did the sun strike first? Which wall cut the wind?

What was the picture in his mind as the hammer
hit the nail? A conversation? Another joke, a cigarette
or Friday, getting drunk, a woman, his wife, his youngest
kid or a side job he planned to make ends meet?

Maybe he pictured just the nail,
the slight swirl in the center of the head and raised
the hammer, and brought it down with fury and with skill
and sank it with a single blow.

Not a difficult trick for a journeyman, no harder
than figuring stairs or a hip-and-valley roof
or staking out a lot, but neither is a house,
a house is just a box fastened with thousands of nails.


Pickwork

There is skill to it, how you hold your back all day, the dole
of force behind the stroke, the size of bite, where
to hit, and knowing behind each swing a thousand others wait
in an eight-hour day.

And if the head suddenly comes rattling down the handle:
knowing to drive a nail for a wedge between the wood and the steel.
The inexperienced pretend to see in the dirt a face they hate,
and exhaust themselves. The best

measure themselves against an arbitrary goal, this much
before lunch, before break, before a drink of water, and then
do it. Some listen to the pleasant ringing
of the pick, or music, and trance-like, follow the rhythm

of the swing. Once I spent a half-hour attentive
only to my muscles triggering into motion, sweat
creeping down my chest. Ground makes the biggest difference.
In sandstone you feel the impact to your knees,

in mud you yank the point from the muck each throw.
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. On my job Lorenzo works in the sun all day,
his silver radio quietly tuned to the mexican station.

Shoveling out, he shrugs and says, "No problem, Mark,"
waist-deep in the hole.
From the spot I work, I hear the strike of his pick all day.
Driving home together he has told me about his two black whores,

his ex and daughter in LA, and Susan Nero, "on-stage." Thirteen times
he's seen her. Almost reverent, he says, "She is so beautiful,"
and makes immense cups with his hands.
And driving home he has told me of his landlord who extorts him

for the green card he doesn't have, of his "mo-ther"
dying of cancer in Mexico city, of his son-of-a-bitch
dad who beat him, and her, and ran away, of his brother Michael,
and Joaquim, in Chicago, the Central Valley. In the car

he asks me if I think the boss will hold half his pay, he needs
to save something for his sister
-- I hear his pick all day
and in the afternoon I go out to ask him, how's it going?

He shrugs me off. "It's no big problem, Mark.
No problem, I can do it, but the fucking pick is dull,"
and shows me the blunted steel point. "I need something --
sharper, you know: I need a sharper pick."


Shithouse

Illiterate, banal, scrawled in ink, fingered in shit,
even blood -- or penciled painstakingly
until lead clung to the letters ploughed

into the plastic wall;
some messages so impersonal they surprise by the need
to be said at all: Fuck.

Others are illumined with autonomous cocks and balls,
spread female legs like wings
with the cunt scratched furiously.

One I saw, a squirrel, his face void of expression
except intentness, licking
his own huge human-sized dick and balls -- as if cracking a nut,

the four black marking-penned
spurts of cum, in parody of tears, falling from it;
the figure obviously worked on

to get it right:
forearms like crazed wires where he labored
frustrated to fix how they cross the torso,

the tiny strokes of scrotum hairs
coaxed from the blunt black pen, the gratuitous branch --
As if loathing were art. As if it weren't.


In Winter

These days in winter when the weather breaks for a spell
I return to the job thinking about
children, money, and divorce --

and sweep sliding pools of sawdust and rainwater
off the bloated plywood floor.
The rooms: dripping, dark --

smell of cigarette smoke, fir, and wool
as men splash from room to room in rubber boots and slickers,
nailing up the power cords from the water.

I'm amazed I'm here sometimes, doing this work with these men,
and sometimes expect them to find me out -- though they never act
as if I am not where I am supposed to be.

They smile and joke with me, respect me.
Outside the frame of a window I see stumps of three plum trees
that yesterday we cut down with a chainsaw --

and where the branches fell into puddles among the hillocks
of mud the water is stained a wine red --
and a shower of pale pink petals rings the dumpster.

When I lived with her, I never thought about my daughter
during the day, while I worked, while she sat in school
among strangers' children. Or if I did

it was with a kind of mustered poignance --
she would be there when I got home. But now, thinking of her,
I remember sitting in wooden chairs,

boredom, anxiety, and guilt swirling in my head,
what I was required to know but didn't
about Asia, mathematics, what someone said.


Will Turpin b. 1987

The eyes are slits -- the pupils grayest blue.
The eyebrows: two watercolor lines,
brush dipped only in water. On the nose's tip

is a minute field of white pimples . . .
Sucking so far is what he does best,
pulling with short intent strokes, or recklessly

(for the pleasure of recklessness it seems)
releasing the rubber nipple almost to the tip
then sucking in hard.

When it drops out he cries, feels the brush
of lips across his face, cooing, then pacified,
sucks again, follows motion with his eyes.


Photograph From Antietam
-- "Dead Confederate Soldier"
Gardner, Catalog #554
Around him is battlefield litter,
dew-swollen lumps of a spilled powder. What is it?
And the strips of cloth. Left behind
the lines of men that advanced or fell farther on

or hid somehow on this trampled field
of Maryland grass. By chance, at the extreme upper
edge of the photo, "unmistakable, but barely discernable
in the distance": soldiers dragged into a long row,

their uniforms, the dark Union "Shoddy" or Confederate gray.
Or the white? -- The white stomach and thigh of a Union man
who died, trousers left undone
by soldiers who looked at the wound and crawled off?

-- Hardly more than unfocused grayscale. But here, on the ground
photographed is one dead: sharp as a flower
and sprawled in the posture of ease,
one bent arm behind his head.

From the waist down it is hard to tell
his legs from bedding, his form is lost in rags,
his chest protrudes contortedly from a nest of rags.
Both sleeves are rolled, and a vein

in the crooked forearm still seems to bulge --
the other lies on his chest, pale and marble, feminine,
hand hidden at the wrist.
From the nose and eye, two dried black tears

of blood streak his cheek and forehead.
On his chin: two tufts of a cleft goatee, a devil's beard
-- maybe he was a devil -- he seems so young,
tossed and wrecked by the war.

In the zone of sharpness and contrast around his form
the blades of grass and sticks
seem to turn around him, the configuration of each twig
and clump of moss on each

quite apparent, yet abstracted into a circle
of random and spiked white signs
floating around him in nature's meaningless codes
for mishap or premature death.

You can see he lies in the shallowest of crevices,
not man-dug -- as if pubes of the earth were
already forming up and around, drawing him back in --
a pitiful breastworks . . .

likely it was only a spot where he had chosen to fire temporarily,
crossing this field. Or a friend pulled him here dying,
or he came to it himself during the battle
to prevent being wounded again.


"The Box" and "Pickwood" first appeared in The Paris Review; "Photograph from Antietam" first appeared in Ploughshares.


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