January 24, 2010

And My Son a Handle

As a senior in college, I was flying home from Maine to Baltimore what felt like every other week. My father was dying. I often spent my visits at his bedside, sometimes at home, sometimes at the hospital. I read him the poems I was studying, some of them naming things I would never have been able, otherwise, to name.

In Gary Snyder's "Axe Handles," a father goes from teaching his son to throw a hatchet to crafting a new axe handle so that his son has an axe of his own:

"We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
'When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off.'"

Yesterday, our dear friend lost her father. Her son is four months old. I know some of the contours of grief stretching out ahead of her, and I know that for her they will have textures all their own. I would like to say a long prayer for her that will last as long as her grief will last. I don't know a prayer like that.

As Gary Snyder's poem continues, he remembers that his teacher, "Shih-hsiang Chen," "translated that and taught" him that "in Lu Ji's Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. 'Essay on Literature'" it says in the preface that:

"'In making the handle Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.'"

At the close of the poem, the speaker reflects:

"And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on."

She posted a picture of her father with her son. I think there should be a name for the feeling that comes when you look in wonder at your child and simultaneously feel the absence of a lost parent. It is sweet, full, and empty. Every edge of it is touched on both sides by a kind of love, and on one side by absence, and on the other side by hope.

1 comment:

  1. how uncanny that i would finally read this right now. love.

    ps. please come back to this space.