Updated: Jul 10, 2020
My wife and I lived in Virginia from ’00 to ’04 while I was in grad school for poetry. By ’03 we were already two kids heavier and I had started my second summer as a one-man freelance construction business to help make ends meet. I built decks, patios, pergolas and sheds – none of which I had experience doing before I landed my first job. Well, OK, I did have some experience. I helped my dad carry lumber for the deck he built on our house when I was in 7th grade. And I did have a decent collection of his power tools that I had borrowed and not returned. Like they say, you’re an expert till someone proves you otherwise. Yep.
I never planned on starting this business. One of my professors asked if I could help do some repairs on their deck. I said yes, and one total rebuild, one pergola, two field-stone patios, a retaining wall, a summer and half a fall later – I was a bona fide craftsman, or a certified nut…you make the call. All I know is that as a grad student and dad with a young family, I was grateful for the chance to make a good buck. But I was also grateful for fertile ground to dig into for my writing.
Later that fall semester (just weeks after September 11th) I had an assignment come up in one of my classes that required writing in a formal structure. What follows is a collection of poems, specifically cinquains, that I titled “The Dahlonega Projects” after the name of the street my professor lived on. There’s a bunch, but they’re a fast read.
Paper- work that explains the cost of the mess that I’ll make in back of their house this summer.
Only dead-straight lumber, galvanized nails and screws, eighty pound bags of concrete and patience.
Each line must be as clean and straight as the finished product, and the numbers had best add up.
A CLEAN WORKSPACE
Scrap wood, sawdust, tools, screws, extension cords—all have minds of their own by the end of the day.
Nothing begins before I’ve made a pot and drank my mind and muscles full-up like Popeye.
Before the world wakes from dream-silence into day, from coffee to a hammer, stars hang on.
LEAVING FOR WORK
My wife blows a silent kiss from the back door, while the baby is still an hour from waking.
Brown bag lunches can’t be beat, especially when she’s packed a love note with the ham and cheese.
AN ASIDE ON CONSTRUCTION WORK
The act of creating a structure from nothing but imagination and will: power.
WORKING IN THE HEAT
Let sweat drip from my nose, run stinging into my eyes, make my hands slick and my throat dry out.
MEASURING TO 1/16th OF AN INCH
The gap left from being off by 1/16th is the drip from the pricey faucet, at night.
Without power tools I might as well be at a buffet with no plate, silverware, or cash.
The wood will tell you what side of the board should be facing up. Read the directions: cup down.
The thing about making a deposit that size is that the first withdrawal is much bigger.
My hands feel like they’re in gloves made out of millions of ants more hell bent to finish than me.
If dogs live where you work, expect the back yard to be a war zone, fully armed with landmines.
WINDS OF CHANGE
Owners will think of more and more things that they wish done, usually at breakfast or sun-down.
NAILS vs. SCREWS
Construct a line with just any words and you get a line. Build with guts you’ll be a poet.
THE COLOR OF LEAVES
They would generally go unnoticed if not for the persistence of the birds singing.
SEPTEMBER 10th 2001
Planes from Baltimore and National mixed engine song with classic rock. I’d look up for ‘copters.
SEPTEMBER 18th 2001
My saw ripped into live coverage, broadcasting that we should go on living. The sky was dead.
EXPECT LITTLE COOPERATION
Making a living by the hour can be done if the Sun God decides he likes your work.
Six holes one foot, two feet, three feet, four feet deep through roots as thick as my forearm, all by hand.
LAYING OUT THE PATTERN
Field stone resists being fit together like tight puzzle pieces, likes to have room to breathe.
80 POUND BAGS
With no place to put them close to where I needed them, I climbed roughly two hundred- ten flights.
CLEAR VERTICAL GRAIN
Cut from the heart of old growth cedar, the wood begs meditation, vision and a sharp blade.
Thirty years of growth that was cut away in a few hours was just a trim for the old boy.
HARRY MOTIVATES THE HELP
I would work in any heat from dawn till dusk just to hear him ask you want a beer, brother?
THERE WILL ALWAYS BE PROJECTS
As long as there is light in the mind of a home- owner who believes revising is fun.