Find an example of wood with your eyes. The floorboards, a door, trim around the window, cutting board, kitchen table, the sycamore there. Imagine it against your knuckles as you rap on it. Feel how hard. Hear the knock. Now, add time. Not that much. Add moisture. Less than you think. Add maybe a few bugs chewing from the outside in. You only need a few. That wood, so solid against your knuckles now, in short time, in so much less time than you might think, turns to salad, scoopable with a spoon.
For nine years I worked as a carpenter, doing renovation work, building decks and bookcases and adding a library to a house here, many kitchens from their floors to their ceilings there. Salad was my boss’s word for rotted wood, and when she used it, I felt it in my guts. Finding spots of rot frightened me in a way I couldn’t, for a long time, articulate. To duck under a deck and find a post rendered pulp, or press a section of subfloor beneath a dishwasher that had drip-dripped just a little every cycle and feel it give way under my hand in slick, damp surrender, brought a new and specific fear. How could this strong and solid thing be turned to mush? The horror of transformation, of disintegration, of decomposing, of breaking down to the point of being unrecognizable. How terrifying it was. How quickly we become part of the great compost pile! In the carpentry work I saw this process of transformation over and over—soil seed tree board house water time salad soil. As Adrienne Rich has it in her poem “End of an Era,” “autumn saws the great grove down . . . certain old woods are sawdust.” Or, as Ovid has it in his Metamorphoses, “a thing’s becoming other than it was.”
The horror of transformation, of disintegration, of decomposing, of breaking down to the point of being unrecognizable. How terrifying it was.
Working on the second draft of my first book, Hammer Head, which detailed leaving my journalism job to learn the carpentry trade, I wanted to read something that wouldn’t interfere with the task at hand. No silly macho posturing of Shop Class as Soulcraft, no elegant meditations on handwork in Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman. No, I thought, I’ll read Ovid’s twelve-thousand-line poem that tells story after story of transformation; this won’t at all infect or influence the project I’m working on.
Wrong, of course. Deeply wrong. The Metamorphoses became the backbone of that first book. It helped frame my understanding of the transformations I was witnessing (solid to salad), making happen (void to deck), and putting myself through (journalist to carpenter). Going from spending the hours of your days in front of a computer to spending the hours of your days hammering fasteners into floor joists and lugging pressure-treated 2x10s is not the same as going from a human to a pool, or spider, or frankincense tree. But reading Ovid’s stories of these sorts of transformations helped me understand, and feel more at home, with all the change all around. “Renewal is the lot of time,” writes Ovid. “All things change.”
“Nothing changes,” writes Rich in her poem. And in the midst of nothing changing, “poetry extends its unsought amnesty” and “some voices though shake like heat.” Octavio Paz, in one of his final poems, called “Coda,” references the myth of Baucis and Philemon, longtime loves turned to oak and linden; their story appears in Book VIII of The Metamorphoses where it has moved me more than once to tears. “Your glance scattered seeds,” Paz writes, “It planted a tree./I talk/because you shake its leaves.” A seed planted, a tree, a voice that shakes like heat, and poetry all along spreads its seed and new trees rise—a poem plants a juniper, here, for this person, later on, elsewhere, an elm, each offering amnesty in its shade.
The poet is scattered like seeds in Auden’s poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”: “Now he is scattered among a hundred cities/And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,/To find happiness in another kind of wood.” Everyone owns the poems once the poet goes. “The words of a dead man/Are modified in the guts of the living.” They are broken down, digested, decomposed. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden writes. All things change. Nothing changes. Poetry makes nothing happen. “It survives,” says Auden. “A way of happening. A mouth.” A voice that shakes like heat.
Five years after that second draft and Ovid changing everything, I’d finished a season of carpentry and was flipping through The Metamorphoses again. To try to get my writing muscles back in shape after months of working my shoulders and my back, I gave myself an exercise. I decided to write one of the stories there from a different perspective. I read the story of Callisto, turned to a bear, turned later to a constellation. I listened to her voice in my mind, heard how she might like to tell her story, and I wrote it down. Then I did another. And another. And another. It was less the condition of change that hit me on this revisiting of The Metamorphoses, and more the voices, all the different voices, rising like heat. I listened to the voices, leaves shaking in a tree, and became a mouth. Three months later, the book that would become Wake, Siren existed.
I listened to the voices, leaves shaking in a tree, and became a mouth.
Same poem, different eyes. Different poem, same eyes. Different poem, different eyes. Who knows? Poetry survives, says Auden, and he echoes Ovid. The closing lines of The Metamorphoses show the poet in full confidence of his work. Not even time, “which would erode all things, has power to blot out this poem.” And as a result, “if poets’ prophecies are ever right—my name and fame are sure: I shall have life.” Turns out the prophecies are true. “All things change but no thing dies.” His lines live on, getting decomposed, living again in some new form, some changed shape, changed and changing all the time, as we are. Soil seed tree soil. A scattering of stars. A grove of birch. Lines on pages that live and change and keep living. A comfort here, and we can thank poetry for helping us approach the nothing that awaits us all.
Nina MacLaughlin is the author of the acclaimed memoir Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter. Formerly an editor at The Boston Phoenix, she is a books columnist for The Boston Globe and has written for publications including The Paris Review Daily, The Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, Bookslut, The Daily Beast, Cosmopolitan, and The Huffington Post. She was also recognized in Refinery29‘s list of “21 New Authors You Need to Know.” She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.