Dec. 9, 2004

Last Hired

by Mark Turpin

The Box

by Mark Turpin

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Poem: "The Box" and "Last Hired" by Mark Turpin, from Hammer © Sarabande Books, 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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.

Last Hired

On Monday returned the man I fired
wanting the phone number of the laborer he loaned money to,
and stood while I wrote it out on a scrap of shingle
and the crew on the floor kept hammering

with the silence of three hammers tapping out different beats.
I scratched down the name and seven digits with a flat pencil,
scrawling across the ridged grain and then with it.
He thanked me with an uncomfortable smile and left.

He was incompetent, but incompetence is not a crime
-- I never liked him.
Out of almost pure intuition, right from the beginning
and I noticed how quickly the other men closed in beside me

against him. He must have felt it, too,
those days as he knocked the nails out of his screwed-up formwork,
and spit saliva in the hammermarks of his windowsills
to raise the grain. Must have every day

felt more alone. He had a habit of mumbling explanations
that trailed into incoherence. But he was not a stupid man.
when I asked him to repeat himself, he shrugged me off
with a sigh and asked me what I wanted him to do.

The morning I fired him I walked down to the street
before he could leave his truck, and was on the way surprised
and annoyed by a hypocritical watering in my eyes that went away.
Then catching him, saw-in-hand, I told him to go back to the truck.

I said it deliberately hard, so he would guess
before I said the words. Then we stood together. And he took it
as if he expected, and failure were something he had grown around.
Then he got in his truck, drove the street, and was gone.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1854 that Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was published. The title refers to the British Light Brigade in the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War, who went on a suicide charge over open terrain against heavy Russian fire.

It's the birthday of the poet who wrote Paradise Lost, John Milton, born in London, England (1608). He was the son of a wealthy scrivener who supported young Milton's interests in music and poetry. Milton was a studious boy. His brother Christopher said, "When he was young, he studied very hard and sat up very late, commonly till twelve or one o'clock at night." Milton was educated partly at home by personal tutors, then attended St. Paul's School followed by Christ's College, Cambridge.

Milton was writing poetry by age nine, but he originally intended to become a minister. After Cambridge, he resolved to become a poet, and he returned to his father's estate for several years of study. Milton wrote one of his great poems, "Lycidas," during this time.

Milton began traveling abroad in 1638, and returned to England the following year. Milton wrote pamphlets in support of political elements critical of the king. This earned him a role in the Commonwealth government of Oliver Cromwell. During this time, Milton lost his sight and he depended upon his secretaries to help him complete his official work. This work included writing more pamphlets in defense of the Cromwell government. One of these secretaries was the poet Andrew Marvell, also Milton's friend.

In 1643, Milton married a woman half his age, who left him only a few weeks after their wedding. He responded by writing pamphlets in support of divorce on the grounds of incompatibility, which was considered a radical idea at the time. His wife returned to him in 1645, gave birth to three daughters, and died in 1652. Milton married a woman named Katharine Woodcock in 1656, and she died in childbirth in 1658. He married his third wife in 1663.

At this time, Milton decided to write the epic poem he had long wanted to write. Due to his blindness, he wrote with the help of secretaries, including Marvell. He first published Paradise Lost in 1667. Milton sold the copyright to Paradise Lost for ten pounds because he needed the money. It is one of the most famous poems ever written in English.

It's the birthday of Joel Chandler Harris, born near the village of Eatonton in Putnam County, Georgia (1848). He is best known as the creator of the "Uncle Remus" stories, and for capturing the dialects of American Southerners in his stories. Harris worked as a boy as an apprentice to the editor of The Countryman, published on a Southern plantation. He gained first-hand understanding of the black slaves, and their folklore and dialect.

Harris was forced to leave the plantation when it was destroyed by General Sherman during the Civil War. He did not forget what he learned on the plantation, and he began publishing stories and sketches in the Atlanta Constitution. The stories drew upon the folklore and humor of the Southern blacks he had known. Harris published them in the Constitution from 1876 to 1900.

Harris's first short story collection was titled Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (1881). Uncle Remus is a smart and lovable former slave, and the stories are accounts of his adventures in the world. Harris became famous because of this collection. He went on to write several more collections of Uncle Remus's adventures.

Harris also wrote several books about the cultures of the aristocratic and poor whites in Georgia.

Joel Chandler Harris said, "Culture is a very fine thing, indeed, but it is never of much use either in life or literature, unless it is used as a cat uses a mouse, as a source of mirth and luxury."

It's the birthday of the screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo, born in Montrose, Colorado (1905). He is best known for the novel Johnny Got His Gun (1939), and for writing the screenplay for the movie version of that book, and for being blacklisted from Hollywood for belonging to a Communist organization. Trumbo attended the University of Colorado, but transferred to the University of Southern California when his family moved to Los Angeles in 1923. He dropped out of college and worked in a bakery for six years because he wanted to teach himself to write. Trumbo estimated that he wrote eighty short stories and six novels during that time, all rejected by publishers.

Trumbo started working in Hollywood as a reader in the story department for Warner Brothers' Studios while he completed his premiere novel, Eclipse (1936). Trumbo became a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer after the novel was published. He quickly became one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, earning as much as $75,000 per script.

Trumbo enjoyed writing in the bathtub, and he wrote portions of Johnny Got His Gun in the tub. That novel is about a soldier in World War I who suffers severe injuries, making him incapable of communication with the outside world.

Trumbo joined the Communist Party in 1943, and in 1947 he was summoned to the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities. He refused to answer their questions and was charged with contempt. He was convicted of the charge and spent ten months in a federal prison in Kentucky.

During this time, Trumbo was blacklisted by the Association of Motion Picture Producers. After his release from prison, Trumbo wrote scripts under assumed names for very little money. This changed in 1960, when Trumbo wrote the screenplay for Spartacus. The movie starred Kirk Douglas--also born on this day (1916)--who insisted that Trumbo be allowed to use his own name. He was, and the blacklist was over.

In 1971, Trumbo wrote the screenplay to Johnny Got His Gun, just as the novel was reprinted in paperback.

Dalton Trumbo said, "While writers dearly love to work, they stand with parsons and painters and philosophers in loving just as dearly to be paid for it."

It's the birthday of the writer Joe McGinniss, born in Massachusetts (1942). He became obsessed with soccer while covering the O. J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles in 1994. He spent much of his free time that year watching international soccer matches on live television at odd hours. McGinniss refused to write the book on the Simpson trial after it was over, saying, "The verdict made a mockery of the whole thing." McGinniss wrote instead The Miracle of Castel di Sangro (1999), the chronicle of a minor league soccer team in a small Italian town. He has also written The Selling of the President (1969), an account of Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign strategy, and several other books.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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