“Writing My Own Name in the Encyclopedia of Work:” A review of Matthew Nienow’s House of Water

51vqmucgbtl-_sx322_bo1204203200_House of Water, the debut collection by poet Matthew Nienow, is an important and moving accomplishment, a song of praise to familial love and a fervent, nearly religious tribute to the transformative power of work. Nienow is a builder of boats—he trained for a year at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding–and his poetry is at its best in the woodshop, with its chisels and clamps, its cedar strakes and ball-peen hammers, the “holy geometry of the try square and perfectly sharpened pencil.” The language in these poems is quiet and concrete, and its emotional focus is minutely, almost obsessively, centered on the process of constructing vessels from raw wood. As he fashions a bowsprit from a piece of lumber, he describes how “the boat / curls golden bracelets of cedar / around your wrists as you plane each / plank.” Nienow is not interested with the coy ambiguity or self-indulgence of many of his contemporaries, but rather returns to what Ezra Pound might consider the “luminous details” of the boat-builder and his tools.

“I’ve always loved making things,” Nienow said in an interview with the University of Washington’s Perspectives, “from boats to furniture, to songs to poems.” He applies the meticulous care of his boatbuilding to his poetry as well, and the poems in this collection are sturdy and lean. “In the Boatyard” is a carefully-crafted triptych, while “I Wear the Work Upon My Clothes” rings with a subtle iambic rhythm. The boat-maker’s hammer is analogous to the poet’s pen–they are both simple tools that, used properly, can be used to create works of beauty–and hammers appear everywhere in this collection. Nienow’s speaker uses hammers to “[sing] a sentence into stone” or [write] my own name in the encyclopedia of work.”

American poetry, of course, enjoys a rich tradition of work poets, and House of Water evokes the spirit of two of them: Walt Whitman and Philip Levine. One of the epigrams for the collection comes from Whitman, and its first poem, “The Shipwright’s Prayer,” with its beautiful catalogue of a wood-worker’s tools, seems a conscious homage to Whitman’s celebratory work poems. (This reviewer imagined Nienow singing “the wood-cutter’s song” from “I Hear America Singing.”) One of the few missteps in House of Water is “Song of Tomorrow,” a poem whose title invites a Whitmanesque interpretation. The imagery of his two sons is warm and vivid, but his description of “these two bright / chances at my side, burning blonde in the sun, / singing at every sweetness” leans too far toward sentimentality and sticks out amongst the other, more original works.

Nienow also writes in the tradition of Philip Levine, that American poet of labor and the working class. Like Levine, Nienow uses language is that spare and direct, rarely relying on an obscure or contradictory image to convey his emotional message. Unlike Levine, though, his poetry portrays labor as a ritual of love, not merely as a punishing chore to be endured. It is only through rough labor that life’s possibilities can be actualized, and beauty freed from raw materials and “the wood’s potential.” In “Ode to the Belt Sander and This Cocobolo Sapwood,” an image of a bird emerges miraculously from what he refers to as the “tree’s unseen.”

          A single knot blinks
          Out of the small block & becomes

          The eye of a hummingbird, its beak
          Bending around the edge of the wood,

          Its song captured in the annular rings.
          To think, this block was tossed in

          With the scrap. That the bird
          Could have been lost. Or burned.

He writes about when the work goes badly, as it sometimes does, and, like Levine, Nienow articulates the desperation of the working poor. In “In the Year of No Work,” the speaker resorts to ice fishing to feed his family, and fails. This heartbreaking poem, with subtle allusions to the gospel, confronts poverty, despair, and the impossible demands of fatherhood. The poem concludes with the empty-handed speaker returning to his hungry family, confessing he “reeked of the sea and had nothing to show for it.” In “Nocturne with Mysterious Leak,” a broken pipe, hidden behind the drywall, symbolizes life’s uncontrollable failures: “you climb onto the raft and listen / to the patter grow to a heavy hushing, a song of nothing / can be done and so you do nothing” (37).

The work in House of Water is dangerous and fraught with failure, whether it involves constructing a boat, renovating a home, or building the young family that enters into the poetry and takes over its emotional focus. The first of the book’s four sections is nearly devoid of human figures other than the solitary speaker, alone in his workshop like an anchorite in a cell. In “Adjustments,” the speaker confronts the dangers of the table saw, its “terrible beauty” that makes creation possible, yet threatens to maim the creator with its spinning blade and “raker teeth.” Nienow beautifully renders the vulnerability that artistic effort demands, demonstrated here in removing a safety guard that “only gets in the way.” Nienow poetry begins with the work, the physical act of hammering and planing, and then circles out to encompass the man’s true accomplishments—the human relationships he crafts and cares for. In both cases, the process of building is an expression of love: his son, like a wood shaving emerging from a cleanly-planed plank, “[curls] out of the womb, his purple face puckered at the work of being made.”

“From the Middle of It” is the collection’s central poem, and in this piece, the twin concerns of physical labor and familial devotion interlock like a carpenter’s perfect dovetail joint. In it, the speaker recalls the summer he “worked / like a madman,” renovating a home for his family. While he stumbles about “with the clatter / of hammers and blades,” his children play in the yard, unaware of the tremendous physical effort he expends for them to create this house. At work with the drywall, he recalls the voice of his father, who taught him how to build a home, and at the same time thinks forward to the future, where this home will be a place where “my children will someday return to / as strangers and maybe for a moment / remember.”

His ability to coax a dried-up well into his kitchen and “open the facet slowly to the sweet / run of water filling a glass” seems like nothing less than a miracle of love, and it is with love that the poem ends:

          I stood there at my life and touched

          The edges and wanted to love everything,

          Even the time it took to get here,

          And for a brief moment felt exactly

          What I knew I would never have.

After this touching picture of a building and a family growing up contiguously, the collection makes a curious return into the workshop, back into solitude. It ends as it begins, with a builder alone with his tools, and seems to turn its back on itself: the anchorite returning to his cell. He is left at last with his boats, ready to take him out to sea, though the reader wonders if this is a journey one must make alone. In the final moments of the book, he writes how “the boat has come to own [him]” and leaves him with the prayer “May you forget your life, may you / always be close.”
Aaron Brame is the former senior poetry editor at The Pinch Journal. He is the winner of Synaesthesia Magazine’s 2015 poetry contest, and his work also appears in Lumina, Hartskill Review, Kindred, and Pembroke Magazine. He teaches eighth-grade English in Memphis, Tennessee.