Friday, November 17, 2023

"Pulling a Nail" by Galway Kinnell

Pulling a Nail

In the year of my birth
my father buried this spike,
half in hemlock half in oak,
battered the flat of its head
into the dead center
of the round dent of his last blow.

He would have struck
in quick strokes filled
with inertia and follow-through.
He would have hit at the precise
moment the direction of force
in the hammer exactly lined up
with the axis of the nail.

As friction tightened, he would have
hit harder, striking up
shock waves that struck back
in his elbow and shoulder.

Near the end, when his arm
grew weak and his hand
could barely hang on,
he would have gone
all out and clobbered
the nail, crushed it into itself,
with each blow knocking
off kilter every new tilt of the head.

I hack and scrape
but can’t get the hammer’s claw
to catch under the rim of the nail,
and I have no nail pull or pry bar.
But looking back in time, I see
my father, how he solved
it when in the same fix:
angling the claw of his hammer
like a chisel, he cozied it
up to the nail head, then taking
a second hammer, smacked
the face of the first, and kept on
smacking it, until the claw
gouged grooves for itself
in the bruised wood and grudged under.
So I do as my father did.

Now begins what could be called
carpenters’ arm wrestling, and also,
in this case, transrealmic combat
between father and son.
We clasp right hands (the flared
part of the hammer handle,
his hand) and press right elbows
to the hemlock (the curved
hammer head, his steel elbow) and pull.
Or rather, I pull, he holds fast, lacking
the writ to drag me down where he lies.

A nail driven so long ago
ought to be allowed to stay put,
until the structure it serves
crumbles into its ill-fitting cellar hole,
or on a freezing night flaps up
and disappears in a turmoil
of flame and smoke and its
blackened bones; or until the nail
discovers it has become
merely a nail hole filled with rust.

A spike driven long ago
resists being pulled—worse
than a stupefied wisdom tooth
whose roots, which have screwed
themselves into the jawbone,
refuse to budge; worse even
than an old pig who hears
the slaughterer’s truck pull up
and rasp open its gate and rattle
its ramp into place, and grunts,
and squeals, and digs in.

Slipping for leverage
a scrap of quarter-inch wood
under the hammer, I apply
a methodology I learned from
unscrewing stuck bottle lids:
first, put to it the maximum force
you think you can maintain,
and second, maintain it.

Just as when an earthworm
pulls itself out of a cul-de-sac,
cautious end pulling adventurous end,
stretching itself almost in two
until the stuck end starts to come free,
so this nail, stretched and now
starting to let go, utters a thick squawk—
first sound it has made since
my father brought down his hammer
full force on it, adding a grunt of his own,
and thudded it home—and a half-inch
of newly polished steel stutters
out of fibrous matter intended to grip it
a good long time, if not forever.

My fulcrum this time a chunk
of inch board, I pull again, again
creating a chaotic ruckus,
and another segment of bright
steel screeches free.

Helped along this time by
a block of two-by-four lying
on its inch-and-three-quarter side,
I leverage out another noisy half-inch.
At last, standing the block up
on its three-and three-quarter inch side,
I pull hard, hold the pressure,
and the entire rest of the nail,
almost too hot to handle, extrudes
in an elegant curve of defeated matter.

It seems I’ve won.
But in matters like this
winning doesn’t often
feel exactly like winning.
It’s only a nail, I know,
an earthen bit. Bent.
Very possibly torqued.
And yet my father drove it
to stake out his only hope
of leaving something
lasting behind. See,
there he is now, bent
at his workbench,
in the permanent
gloom of the basement
of the house on Oswald
Street that he built, as he did
everything he did, alone,
probably driving all but a few dozen
of its ten thousand nails himself.

A dark yellowish aura, like
the dead glow of earliest
electricity, unused to being
harnessed, hangs above
his head. He’s picking over
a small heap of bent nails,
chucking some, straightening
out others back into usefulness
in the rectilinear world.
At this one he pauses.
He lifts it to the light, sights
along it as if he doubts
it can ever be used again.
I take it from his hand just
as he fades out of sight.
In it I can feel the last heat
of our struggle. Thumb
and forefinger hold the nail
to the bench, bent side up,
forming a little wobbling
bridge between then
and now, between me and him,
or him and me, over which
almost nothing of what mattered
to either of us ever passed.
A hammer still floats in the space
he had been standing in.
I pluck it out of the air
and use it to hammer the nail
up and down its length, rotate it
to keep the bend on top,
hammer it, rotate it,
hammer it, well into the night.
The cellar windows become light.
It is late. I don’t think
I will ever straighten it out.

Source of the text – Galway Kinnell, Strong Is Your Hold.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006,  pages 24-29.

TJB: Unhammering. The poet’s step-by-step struggle to pull a nail that was driven into place long ago by his father becomes a sort of time-travel.

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