The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano by B.H. Fairchild

Over the past few years I have bought at least a half-dozen copies of B.H. Fairchild‘s book The Art of the Lathe and given them to folks.  A quick scan of my bookshelves shows that I need to buy a couple more copies as I am out once again.  I picked the book of poetry up the first time because of the title and my earlier life as a machinist.  Although I enjoyed lathes, my favorite type of equipment to run was the horizontal boring mill.  The creative possibilities were endless.  NC and CNC automated processes changed all that.  My last industrial job at the General Electric Jet Engine plant in Cincinnati, Ohio consisted of loading parts, pushing a button, and watching the machine run.  I became incredibly bored. Nearly 30 years ago, I finally earned my B.A. and then quit the job at GE and went to graduate school.  I have often wondered if the “machinist” occupation had not been largely replaced with computers, would I have even gone to school, gotten my doctorate in Anthropology and moved into a new career.

Fairchild captures so much of the beauty, the sounds, the smells, the very essence of creation of music and metal.  The Machinist Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano is pure magic.


The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano
by B.H. Fairchild

The brown wrist and hand with its raw knuckles and blue nails
packed with dirt and oil, pause in mid-air, the fingers arched delicately,

and she mimics him, hand held just so, the wrist loose,
then swooping down to the wrong chord.
She lifts her hand and tries again.

Drill collars rumble, hammering the nubbin-posts.
The helper lifts one, turning it slowly,
then lugs it into the lathe’s chuck.

The bit shears the dull iron into new metal, falling
into the steady chant of lathe work,
and the machinist lights a cigarette, holding

in his upturned palms the polonaise he learned at ten,
then later the easiest waltzes,
etudes, impossible counterpoint

like the voice of his daughter he overhears one night
standing in the backyard. She is speaking
to herself but not herself, as in prayer,

the listener is some version of herself,
and the names are pronounced carefully,
self-consciously: Chopin, Mozart,

Scarlatti., . . . these gestures of voice and hands
suspended over the keyboard
that move like the lathe in its turning

toward music, the wind dragging the hoist chain, the ring
of iron on iron in the holding rack.
His daughter speaks to him one night,

but not to him, rather someone created between them,
a listener, there and not there,
a master of lathes, a student of music.


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3 thoughts on “The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano by B.H. Fairchild”

  1. Thanks so much for the pingback on my post. My introduction still says it best. And, the poem still gives me chills.

    I love this poem from B. H. Fairchild’s 1998 The Art of the Lathe. When I read it, I get chills–goose-bumps always tell me something more is up than I can know.

    For me, in such a deep way, this poem describes my father–his delicacy, his competence, his depth and no-need-to-speak-it kinship with spirit. For me, in such a deep way, this poem describes my relationship with my father–his tenderness, his wish to teach me both music and how to make, fix, and do practical things with my hands.

    We lived in a world of manual labor, muddy boots and overalls in my childhood…but, we also lived in a world where we practiced classical music on the piano and sang songs together everywhere we drove in the car if my father was in that car. I am so moved, as I read this poem, to have the heart of my childhood and our family culture so well known and described.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. The entire book of poems resonates so much with me. When I worked in this one plant that made lathes (American Tool), I was the third shift replacement on a horizontal boring mill of a man who sang opera while he ran his machine. Although sight was important when running machine tools, it was really the sound of the cutter on the metal that told the story of process. I am always nostalgic and get lost when I come up on websites or books of machine tools of 50 years ago. It was a craft!

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