Friday, July 8, 2016

Working with Words and Wood: Poems of Thom Brucie

Thom Brucie, Apprentice Lessons. Daniel's Vision Press, 2015. Paperback, 26 pages. $7US. ISBN: 978-0-9887094-2-3
“Apprentice Lessons,’ a chapbook written by Thom Brucie (Daniel's Vision Press, 2015), is an interesting and unusual work of poetry. The poems are very much of a piece, dedicated and in homage to Brucie’s mentor, Virgil McLynn, a carpenter and house-builder. Brucie makes clear in these laudatory, lyrical poems that McLynn was not only his mentor in his professional life, but also with regard to his understanding of deeper levels of meaning – moral, philosophical, and spiritual. 

Most of the poems in this collection begin with a concrete image, a description either of a tool of the trade or a technique required in carpentry, and move to a higher plane, a relationship between tool or technique and a significant life lesson. These are presented as Brucie learned them, but also for the edification of the reader. For example, “Bent Nails” begins with a brief instruction:

            The trick to pulling nails
            lies in the angle of the claw.
            Hook the claw onto the nail
            and bend it sideways,
            one way, then the other

The first stanza ends with “Virgil made me straighten them.” Clearly, there is more to pulling nails than just yanking them out of the wood. The poem completes itself with an implication about how one ought to address vicissitudes in life as a whole:

            I learned, eventually, to keep my fingers
            out of my own way,
            and I learned to strike the nail square on,
            like any other matter of concern.

In another case, “A Hickory Hammer Handle,” Brucie moves again from the specific – “Hickory makes the best hammer handle” – through a comparison to a human body – “a hickory shows its age with scars/ and brags of youthful energy/ in supple boughs” – to end with a plaintive “secret prayer that/ my daughter and my sons might endure/ as I will not/ that wisdom pass to them/ as sap to leaf.”

The poems in “Apprentice Lessons” convey in simple diction Brucie’s commitment not only to his profession as a carpenter and his gratitude to his mentor, but also to his desire to elevate the simplest tools and events in life to a loftier and more penetrating metaphysical and existential perspective. His tone is reminiscent of some of the deceptively plain works of Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison. There is wisdom here, and the reader gets a sense of the depth of Brucie’s thinking, the love and admiration for the perspicacity of his mentor, and his desire to bring the noumenal aspects of existence into the contemplation of simple phenomena. At times this effort appears a little forced – in some poems, the shift from the specific to the general and philosophical doesn’t quite hang together – but overall, this compilation is quite satisfying, and sometimes deeply moving as well. In “An Honest Day’s Work,” Brucie expresses it thus:

            If a man produces beauty
            with his handiwork,
            that is reason enough
            to get out of bed
            every morning,
            and sleep serves recuperation
            not escape.

The world might well be a better place if we could all live that way.

- James K. Zimmerman is a widely-published, award-winning poet. His publications include Little Miracles (Passager, 2015) and Family Cookout (Comstock, 2016), winner of the Jessie Bryce Niles Chapbook Award.