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Wood Work

ISSUE:  Autumn 1979

The Building of a Carpenter

Dedicated to all the women I knew who were involved in the Women’s Liberation Front in Pullman in 1969 when all I wanted to do was get married.

Construction crew
first day on the job
hands sweat hard
drool down handle of pick and shovel
seven pairs of eyes,
and five o’clock
becomes a distant mirage
of shimmering nerves.

First day on the job
tool belt blues
and red hammer blisters
The crew call from the roof,
“You gotta hit ‘em Wanda!
You can’t scare ‘em in!”
Their laughter rings up a debt in me
that I set up
that I pay back
with each swing of hammer
ramming nails through wood and home.

Hitching home
reeking with what the guys call
I thumb a ride from the competition boss
who laughed me off his job
when I asked for work.
“Honey,” he said then,
“There ain’t nothin’ you can do for me
that a man can’t do better,
. . . on the job, that is.”
Remembering that
I would almost rather walk
but this body is a tired machine,
so I ease onto the smooth seat
and smell myself
already strong
in the warm cab.
He says, “Haven’t seen you around.
I thought you left
this island.”
I say, “No, I been workin.’”

He says, “Oh?
Who’re you workin’ for?”
I really just want a ride home.
I just need to lay this tired body down.
A cut on my left hand opens and
begins to bleed,
and I watch him watch me spit on it
and hold it against my dirty shirt
to make it stop.
I say, “I’m workin’ for your friend there.”
My foreman’s pickup passes
headed south.
Then he sort of smiles,
and looks me square in the eye,
and says, “Oh?
You doin’ his books?”


One day
I learn to cut sheet plywood
on two sawhorses.
It is a mystery
the start and finish of the thing.
The balance of it escapes me and I finish
less than gracefully
one sawhorse down
drop the saw on my foot.
At this point they don’t even laugh,
they just don’t believe it.
what I am looking to learn
is here somewhere.
Body, strong,
grows new calluses daily:
small scales of protection
for the long swim upstream.


Sheeting this roof
steep, slick, 8:12 pitch
sliding feet
boots grip, slick, slip and grip;
sweat in the sun for every move.
We are a team.
I walk a rafter with a sheet of plywood,
weight resting waist high
one hand overhead leading,
and Nels waits
to grab the other side.

We snug’er down and tap, tap, chunk, tap,
down for another.
All morning this dance goes on—
creation of another kind—
and Nels says, “Wanda,
you’ll make some man a fine wife someday.”

He is telling me
I am becoming a good carpenter
in disguise.


What I am looking to learn
is here somewhere.
This wall
40 feet, 2x6 rough-framed,
and sided laying down
windows in.
A good shop wall.
She’ll stand 25 feet solid.
Heavy chains wrap around plate and studs
and run to front loader to pull her up.
She creaks and strains
but goes up steady.
Wilbur and Hugh make fast safety lines
to one now too-slim looking tree
and everyone is working
on hands and knees
bolting the bottom plate.
The crew
Jerry, Hugh,
Wilbur, Jim, and Wanda:
ten hands, belts, wrenches,
turning, bars prying,
too soon,
Look out! Lookout!
No time to yell
each one screams inside
private warnings
and Run! Run! Run!
She’s coming down!

We scramble silently
the edge inside.
Legs pump,
arms swim the air.
I sprint for a door in the side wall
40 feet,
lungs aching, too terrified
20 feet
to breathe
coming down
steady at my back
10 feet
almost there
I see her close the door gap
fall across the top of the opening

Hit from behind solidly
I tumble through the door
the wall heaves to a final crash
twisting studs and splintering sounds
of my body stopping face down in dirt.
And Hugh on top,
who pushed me through the door
at the last minute.
We all fall together
but silently,
the awful silence of the counting.
Me, Hugh,
Wilbur, standing up in a window opening,
too slow to out-run.
Jim, not grinning, and Tugboat dog
and two hands missing.

Our hearts twist to match
this once straight wall
and think underneath and Jerry.
Jerry comes,
hat in hand,
walking slow
from a far corner where he out-ran us all
and Hugh says, “They don’t pay us enough
to do this,
this is a nine-dollar job if I ever saw one.”
No one laughs.
We all know it’s true.
Then I learn the fear of men
that says, okay, let’s put’er up again.


My father carpenter
grandfather carpenter’s
hands wear the wood
of my hammer
the wood of . my plane smooth under
palms cracked and veined with dirt
that comes from woodwork.
I see clean-toothed smiling faces
of young women in hard hats;
magazine models
of the real thing.
“You’ve come a long way baby!”
“Linda McCoy helps Weyerhauser
work for you!”
I see myself mirrored in cedar.
I feel myself come clear
under long strokes of a bull-nosed plane
on pine.

I see myself,
tape in one hand,
dirt between my teeth
from a hydro level on a rainy day,
level’s caked with mud,
hair streaming,
and the boss selling a new client
one arm around my shoulder
(he’ll have to wash that shirt)
see? we’re even liberated up here.
see? our token lady in the closet.
see? Betty Backhoe, she shoveled gravel for
  six weeks before I finally realized
  she wasn’t going to quit,
ha ha ha
It gets them everytime.


Years of days go by,
I work alone:
debts paid to myself,
I think now of hiring help.
I pack 2x4’s on one shoulder in the sun
and feel light.
It’s a goddamned
beeyoutiful day,
framing outside:
sending sixteens home
like finish nails.
I feel my hand over hammer
like someone is humming me in tune.
Tool belt, near to worn out,
chisel slides through
I bend down to pick up
and it happens.

Round the corner
of the future garage
between stacks of lumber
comes this woman.
I remember clear eyes
(she knows what she wants)
and nice smile.
I check her out
like only women check out
other women.
She says, “You the boss here?”
and I stand up and slip the chisel
into my belt.
She looks me square in the eye
and I have to smile
self-conscious, as if I know
I have to smile.
And say, “Yeah. What can I do for you?”
She says,
“I’m looking for a job.”

Then I find myself thinking
you’re a woman
and I’m a carpenter.
And inside I struggle alone
to raise the wall of some building
(awkward for one)
I groan and strain
and hear myself say
“I don’t think I can use anyone just now, sorry.”

It is a mystery
the start and finish of the thing.
the balance of it has escaped me:
to frame this circle
I have come full circle
past what I wanted to learn,
well into what I needed to know.


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