Monthly Archives: October 2007

Notes on Crown and Ribs: “The Builder”

Tuesday, 30 October, 2007

It was when I organized Crown and Ribs into sections that “The Builder” struck me as a good poem with which to begin the book. I like that it can be read as a love poem—whether the reader identifies with the “you” addressed by the speaker or imagines overhearing the speaker’s address to a beloved. I imagine the reader finding this aspect of the poem both welcoming—romance is engaging, romance is familiar poetic territory—and helpful—the reader may not have thought previously to engage with the book’s subject matter or to associate it with poetry, but first encounters it in a form that makes clear my intention to demonstrate the imminent and passionate nature of my themes.The first line of the poem is a biblical allusion. For a long time, I misremembered the line as a direct quotation. Instead, it seems that it’s a reworking of a phrase from 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-12, 16 which was one of the mass readings for the day of December 24th, 2001 (i.e. not for the Christmas Eve service) when the poem was drafted. Specifically, 2 Samuel 7:5 reads: “Go, tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Should you build me a house to live in?’” (New American Bible)I also think of “a place in which to lie down” modifying “a house” in the third to last couplet as a biblical allusion. In this case, my phrase seems to come out of repeated exposure to similar biblical texts. Throughout 1998 and 1999, I copied out portions of the Psalms, which include many instances in which “lie down” is used to describe achieving contentment. For example, my notes from December 31st, 1997 include “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the Lord sustains me….” from Psalm 3 and “In peace, I will both lie down and sleep; for thou alone, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety….” from Psalm 4. January 2nd, 1998 includes “He makes me lie down in green pastures….” from Psalm 23. (Revised Standard Version for these three quotations.) Research yields more such references both in the Psalms and in other books I would have read during this time such as Isaiah, but nothing that combines “lie down” with either “place” or “house”. However, “place” and “house” are also recurring words in the Psalms which is why I say that I think of this “allusion” as something that stems from an accumulated impression of biblical language rather than from a specific passage.The “man I took breaks with” was a member of the Northwestern University grounds crew who I worked with in the summer of 1993. “Summer as a Landscaper” references the same experience, but a different staffer.Snow falling in a house with an unfinished roof comes to me via a memorable scene in Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublyov, the phantom builders of the world, forever just around the corner, from a childhood fancy of my fathers (which may or may not have something to do with an episode of the old Twilight Zone TV show).The house at 264 Hillsdale Avenue East which my family rented from when I was three to thirteen has shown up in my writing again and again. Here it is the source of “lathe and plaster”. The house wasn’t in good repair, especially the roof. There were sometimes holes in the second floor ceilings as a result of water damage above, the plaster would fall down and I could see the little strips of wood, the “lathes”. I don’t think I learned the phrase “lathe and plaster” until much later, from realtors and home inspectors when I was buying a house, and very much hoping for an old Toronto house akin to the one where I had grown up.

The longing for harmony between construction and nature appears throughout the first section of the book: “To Heap Up and Counterbalance Dead Things”; “At the Offices of the Perishable Press”; “The Mad One”, “Wasting”. So too, the question of whether or not an individual who takes a visionary approach to the city can expect to find a welcoming audience among fellow city-dwellers: “Richmond Hill Memorial Service”; “I’ve Found A Real City”; “The Mad One”.

“The Builder” appeared on pages 66 and 67 of The Fiddlehead, No. 228, the summer issue for 2006. The journal publishes summer poetry and fiction issues in alternating years. The text of the poem in Crown and Ribs differs from this publication in phrasing and lineation, especially in the first twenty lines. The first draft of this poem was written on December 24th, 2001. Some work was done on the poem on August 31st, 2003. It was rewritten in close to its published form on June 16th and 17th, 2004. It was first submitted for publication at that time. The final edits on the poem were completed July 24th, 2006

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