THE IRON BOAT’S OAR
––for Seamus Heaney
In late summer my father brings back
a straight piece of hickory from the country,
sharpens his pocket-knife and begins whittling.
He spends weeks on the front stoop
that white piece of wood across his knees,
shaving and planing,
shaping a smooth handled oar.
Every night, home from the garage,
he takes the piece, aims it toward the light,
checks its true, begins his task
whittling between sips of ice tea
dreaming of corn liquor, pausing
to wipe his brow with his railroad kerchief,
then planing and shaving until he loses the light.
I ask him what it is for, fearing
the paddle. He
smiles––a rare thing
for him––and says it’s for the boat.
November and the first hard frost comes
even to the city. We head out
to Conway, to my grandmother’s.
A fire of oak is blazing in the yard
the huge iron kettle on its three tiny toes
over the roaring heat and a tripod raised with pulley
for dunking hogs in scalding water. . .
It isn’t the popping of dry sticks in the fire
we don’t want to hear, but that other sound
before the hog drops in its tracks,
or the squeal if the bullet misses.
On the backseat of the ‘39 Essex, the oar––wrapped
in clean white cheesecloth––rests on mohair
until the butchering ends and the rendering begins.
Then my father brings out the oar
to stir the cracklings until they melt into fat
in the huge black cast iron pot he calls the boat,
stirring and stirring until the fat is rendered
poured off, cooled and hardened into pure white lard.
The black iron boat that would hardly float the Osage,
is leaned up against the oak, its perfect oar
that took so many weeks to fashion
thrown onto last coals
to blaze up and disappear in smoke
and ashes of the frosty afternoon.
I would run to the open fire and rescue
the oar now seasoned, tested and cured with pig fat
and sweat from my father’s hands.
But something unknown to me
requires his ritual carving,
shaping a new oar every year.
from The Book of Shadows: New and Selected Poems (Lost Horse Press, 2009)