Joe Cottonwood

How to Use a Chisel

Not like that. Flip it over.
Keep the bevel edge down. Flat side up.
Don’t hammer.
Light taps, wooden mallet.
Better, just push with the heel of your hand
as the old masters tell you,
those men of clear hearts who work wood all their lives,
their flesh an anthology of oops —
tales of skin flaps, bloody dovetail joints.

The fingertip fell as a stub
he retrieved from the sawdust floor.
With both hands occupied
pressing tip to knuckle as tenon to mortise
bound in a shop rag dripping red,
he drove the old truck with no hand on the wheel
steering with belly, with elbows,
the whole trip in second gear, couldn’t shift.
It was night. Rain. Then the prettiest little nurse
with that ugly-ass surgeon saying You did it wrong,
should’ve put the stub in a plastic bag with ice
but examining now you’d hardly discern — see?
That crease above the knuckle, it ain’t natural.

Keep a sharp edge.
It’s simple, the motion.
And yet, no matter. One moment out of millions,
something bizarre: a lizard drops onto your head.
Plastic bag. Ice.
Okay? Now, son. Here.
You can have this old man’s chisel.


Joe Cottonwood

Joe Cottonwood has built or repaired hundreds of houses as the carpenter/contractor in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. His latest book is Foggy Dog: Poems of the Pacific Coast.

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