For M.C., 1840-1918
Grandfather Corey in his dying years
ruled a small room where braided sweet-corn hung
among the rafters, seed that he husbanded
and planted in the lot beside our house.
Old master carpenter, on this own at twelve,
was brimful with a Viking rage that fell
on all around him, hated children--
they tracked the garden, I was one of them--
hated the jerry-built poor housing that came in
during the First World War, loved only steel
in planes and drawshaves made to fabricate
ornate wall carvings that now came from factories
and had not known the touch and care of hands.
Hands, he had hands I have not seen again--
so gnarled with weather, splinters, two-by-fours.
They were men's hands from another century,
sailors', woodworkers' hands, concerned with knots,
ropes, logs that had to be dragged and shaped
by men and not machines. He took snuff
from Copenhagen, sneezed into bandanna handkerchiefs,
ate cod bought dried in boxes from the East,
cursed if I stole his blackberries, cursed anyhow
at all his dying world, mustachioed, blue-eyed, as if helmed
with auroch horns upon a grounded ship.
I was so scared I tiptoed by his door; in rages he
smashed crockery, swept tables clean if food
displeased him, challenged, challenged with that cold
that embraced all the world, grandchild, his kin.
It was all one to him who had known open roads,
mining towns, paths that led on. I hated him, he me,
save once, and that made up for all the rest.
Grandmother asked him if he would make a house,
a birdhouse for my birthday. He rumbled like cyclone weather,
spent two days considering, went at last below
to his own bench, sawed, measured, planed and pounded
for two more days, came up with a Victorian home,
windows, porticoes and all. Placed it in my hands gruffly,
turned away. God help me, it is gone with all my childhood now.
I look at Burchfield paintings, stop my car
before old houses lost in mining towns.
I was too young to know his was the last
Victorian house, the last grandfather ever built,
the last time that the chest of tools was opened.
"Take it," he said, thus giving me his life
inarticulate, tangled with ropes and saws,
violence of carpentering and old saloons.
In hard times he had sold my mother's pictures there.
"Take it," he said, and turned away, creative fire
unquenchable, making me marvel, voiceless.
Today I turn old books, live in a century not my own,
try now to tell how Milo Corey lived and built,
what rage surged in him and what tenderness,
find it all useless, snap my pencils with
blunt hands arthritic, lift them in the night,
clasp them in pain as he did, have no way to give
in frustrate fury sunsets or houses to my kind.
Grandfather Corey, I am wordless, too.
I cannot make one birdhouse speak as you.