I’m no spark plug, but I know
my arms bleed strength, and atrophy
with every pleasure. Forget pleasure.
Let me hang unlit light-strings
in the trees, give me a plastic chair
to sit myself down in, and let the roof deck
lift me up in sundown’s sun, give me
the only work that matters:
let me walk in beauty, climb ladders.
Winner of the 2013 T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize, Luc Phinney’s first collection, Compass, examines the relationship between labor and the laborer. These poems exalt in the mechanics of using a body meant to build, chop, haul, and measure, alongside Phinney’s developing, and personal definition of what it is to work. He writes:
[. . .] what it is to be warm,
and what the nature is, of Being, in a freezing
universe, it’s four o’clock and I’m the first one in.
I wet the tables, haul sacks of flour [. . .]
This is not just a collection about man in nature, but rather it implicates one who is working with the elements. “Robinson” describes a place that is distinctly natural yet manmade, and that image of the treehouse gains bearing and importance in this book as it exists somewhere in between the two.
Beyond the satisfaction of building a structure, there’s an added joy in doing something well and with gracefulness. While working with clay in the poem, “Thrownness,” Phinney writes of the physical and psychic state:
The wheel spins
allowing me to work within
the grammar of the form [. . .]
This poem speaks to an ease, a Taoist principle, of letting the work guide the worker. In finding a rhythm or “grammar” (“the accustomed force”) of throwing clay, the speaker can successfully work with and not against it, with aplomb.
This familiar ease and a sense of fulfilment drive these poems. In “God Speaks” the poem asks:
Man, what work is this?
One of us sits still,
watching in the dark,
for trespassers? Not me!
I’m down between the aisles
of stacked wrecked cars,
walking over broken windshield
glass, crushed gravel, the fallen
mitten leaves of sassafras [. . .]
These images: gravel, wrecked cars, windshield glass, and “mitten leaves” come alive in Compass—they speak not to a dissonance between nature and building, but what exists at center, a desired harmony. This poem, and others like it, is delivered with a brave and unapologetic voice. Correspondingly, in “Residences” the speaker asks for what he wants, which, among working cars and houses, is:
proper work, not anything
involving the computer, let me hang big sheets
of white Sheetrock—not 4 x 8, but 4 x 12–
The lyric desire for Sheetrock is central to Compass. There are, in addition, poems that work without tools, that are pictorial and often revel in time-stopped nature. The language in “Travels in Requiem” sways between metaphor and a kind of phrasal representational painting:
Snow slows the night down, unknowing,
unknown, burning orange under one
streetlight, blue-sifted at the next, each sphere
an oncoming or receding galaxy
lost in the star-thick dark.
Perhaps this poem, a contemplative still-life as compared to the aggressive, active work poems, provides a calm before returning to the workplace, where Phinney is most keen. Nevertheless, Compass is a collection where the fullness of a life is revealed; maybe it includes too much; comprehensively, events within the new family are presented here, and the reader travels along, from one milestone to the next.
Ultimately, hammers and nails (“three cents a pound”) hold this collection together. Phinney provides narratives of ability over nature, of what exists between woods and what’s manmade, what demands our effort, exertion, and what rewards with an earned sense of accomplishment; he reminds his readers:
The cabin is more
than an idea, less than a thing [. . .]