I just like this poem. I like that its just one mass. That it’s about a chainsaw; a chainsaw that won’t start but people keep trying. I like the voice and the rural nature and how what people do is who they are. And brand names; I have a thing for the post-modern use of brand names–it either creates intimacy or is plain too hipster.
Mainly, I like how people are defined by the objects they own. The ticks. I have students talk about the car they want when they’re old enough; a car isn’t just a car but an extension of themselves. A favorite shirt. Their shoes. There are desktop computers in my classroom that are “slow” or “stupid” while our mini computers can do no wrong, even as the wireless cuts out or the battery dies before they can save their work.
Notice the health of the characters. There is quite a bit about it, and it parallels the health of the chainsaws.
You can hear him read the poem at the Poetry Foundation website. Just click his face.
by Hayden Carruth
The first chainsaw I owned was years ago,
an old yellow McCulloch that wouldn’t start.
Bo Bremmer give it to me that was my friend,
though I’ve had enemies couldn’t of done
no worse. I took it to Ward’s over to Morrisville,
and no doubt they tinkered it as best they could,
but it still wouldn’t start. One time later
I took it down to the last bolt and gasket
and put it together again, hoping somehow
I’d do something accidental-like that would
make it go, and then I yanked on it
450 times, as I figured afterwards,
and give myself a bursitis in the elbow
that went five years even after
Doc Arrowsmith shot it full of cortisone
and near killed me when he hit a nerve
dead on. Old Stan wanted that saw, wanted it bad.
Figured I was a greenhorn that didn’t know
nothing and he could fix it. Well, I was,
you could say, being only forty at the time,
but a fair hand at tinkering. “Stan,” I said,
“you’re a neighbor. I like you. I wouldn’t
sell that thing to nobody, except maybe
Vice-President Nixon.” But Stan persisted.
He always did. One time we was loafing and
gabbing in his front dooryard, and he spied
that saw in the back of my pickup. He run
quick inside, then come out and stuck a double
sawbuck in my shirt pocket, and he grabbed
that saw and lugged it off. Next day, when I
drove past, I seen he had it snugged down tight
with a tow-chain on the bed of his old Dodge
Powerwagon, and he was yanking on it
with both hands. Two or three days after,
I asked him, “How you getting along with that
McCulloch, Stan?” “Well,” he says, “I tooken
it down to scrap, and I buried it in three
separate places yonder on the upper side
of the potato piece. You can’t be too careful,”
he says, “when you’re disposing of a hex.”
The next saw I had was a godawful ancient
Homelite that I give Dry Dryden thirty bucks for,
temperamental as a ram too, but I liked it.
It used to remind me of Dry and how he’d
clap that saw a couple times with the flat
of his double-blade axe to make it go
and how he honed the chain with a worn-down
file stuck in an old baseball. I worked
that saw for years. I put up forty-five
run them days each summer and fall to keep
my stoves het through the winter. I couldn’t now.
It’d kill me. Of course they got these here
modern Swedish saws now that can take
all the worry out of it. What’s the good
of that? Takes all the fun out too, don’t it?
Why, I reckon. I mind when Gilles Boivin snagged
an old sap spout buried in a chunk of maple
and it tore up his mouth so bad he couldn’t play
“Tea for Two” on his cornet in the town band
no more, and then when Toby Fox was holding
a beech limb that Rob Bowen was bucking up
and the saw skidded crossways and nipped off
one of Toby’s fingers. Ain’t that more like it?
Makes you know you’re living. But mostly they wan’t
dangerous, and the only thing they broke was your
back. Old Stan, he was a buller and a jammer
in his time, no two ways about that, but he
never sawed himself. Stan had the sugar
all his life, and he wan’t always too careful
about his diet and the injections. He lost
all the feeling in his legs from the knees down.
One time he started up his Powerwagon
out in the barn, and his foot slipped off the clutch,
and she jumped forwards right through the wall
and into the manure pit. He just set there,
swearing like you could of heard it in St.
Johnsbury, till his wife come out and said,
“Stan, what’s got into you?” “Missus,” he says
“ain’t nothing got into me. Can’t you see?
It’s me that’s got into this here pile of shit.”
Not much later they took away one of his
legs, and six months after that they took
the other and left him setting in his old chair
with a tank of oxygen to sip at whenever
he felt himself sinking. I remember that chair.
Stan reupholstered it with an old bearskin
that must of come down from his great-great-
grandfather and had grit in it left over
from the Civil War and a bullet-hole as big
as a yawning cat. Stan latched the pieces together
with rawhide, cross fashion, but the stitches was
always breaking and coming undone. About then
I quit stopping by to see old Stan, and I
don’t feel so good about that neither. But my mother
was having her strokes then. I figured
one person coming apart was as much
as a man can stand. Then Stan was taken away
to the nursing home, and then he died. I always
remember how he planted them pieces of spooked
McCulloch up above the potatoes. One time
I went up and dug, and I took the old
sprocket, all pitted and et away, and set it
on the windowsill right there next to the
butter mold. But I’m damned if I know why.