My Father's Axe

AXE HANDLES

One afternoon the last week in April

showing Kai how to throw a hatchet

one-half turn and it sticks in a stump.

He recalls the hatchet-head,

without a handle, in the shop,

and go gets it, and wants it for his own.

A broken-off axe handle behind the door

is long enough for a hatchet.

We cut it to length and take it

with the hatchet head

and working hatchet, to the wood block.

There I begin to shape the old handle

with the hatchet, and the phrase

first learned from Ezra Pound

rings in my ears!

“When making an axe handle

the pattern is not far off.”

And I say this to Kai

“Look: we’ll shape the handle

by checking the handle 

of the axe we cut with—“

And he sees. And I hear it again:

It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century

A.D., “Essay on Literature”—in the 

Preface: “In making the handle

of an axe

by cutting wood with an axe

the model is indeed near at hand.”

My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen

translated that and taught it years ago

and I see: Pound was an axe,

Chen was an axe, I am an axe

and my son a handle, soon 

to be shaping again, model

and tool, craft of culture, 

how we go on.

Gary Snyder, from Axe Handles

Derived mainly from Gary Snyder's Axe Handles, which describes a father teaching his son that a new axe handle is made using the model of the old, broken one. I include Snyder's poem here, hoping no copyright gets infringed.

                        “When making an axe handle the pattern is not far off.”

 

My father enjoys the things his children do. When my compulsion to split wood, to write about it and to talk about it, grew, Dad relished every detail. He loved the idea of it; he wanted to hear about the tools; he wondered about the house in New Hampshire, and the land, long before he visited. And then came the special gifts.

The first gift was two wedges, which he carefully sharpened downstairs in his workshop. They came at a time when Alan and I were splitting a large load of hemlock, and they were handy. The hemlock is big around and ornery, without a straight grain, and most of the splitting was done with wedges and sledge hammers.

And later he brought the axe. Finally Dad and Mom visited us in New Hampshire for the first time. It was great—they really enjoyed the house, the property, our friends. Dad especially enjoyed Alan’s tractor. It was a short visit, just one night if I remember correctly, but during that time Dad captured the essence of our friendship with Alan and Liz and how much we enjoy the New Hampshire woods.

Dad proudly brought with him a broad axe for me, one he had never used, but had carefully sharpened and fitted with a new handle. The axe-head had been given to him by a neighbor friend, Ben, who had no use for it. With the wedges, Dad kept it in his workshop with other tools that might come in handy some day. It was an axe like I’d never used—very long handle, curved at the end. 

Dad and I and Alan took a nice walk in the woods after they arrived, late in the afternoon, to show Dad the land and some of the work we’ve done. The three of us went to spy out the woodpiles and finally to hit a little wood at our latest workstation, a huge pile of beech that Alan winched in from the new ski trail. (Alan has since pointed out to me that there is very little beech in this pile, but I spent many happy and long sessions there thinking I was working on a beech, and imagining other majestic beeches that I’ve admired. More shame; read on.)

So of course I wanted to use Dad’s gift in front of him. I had been thinking all the way out on the walk that this axe had a longer handle than I’d ever used, and that I should be careful, for many reasons. Of course I wasn’t. 

Picking a very small piece of beech—dope—I miss-hit it once. I tried again, missed again, hitting the handle on the stump and busting it off completely from the axe-head. I felt like a jerk, almost like I had never done this before, even though I’d split dozens of cords of wood before.

Of course, all that day I had been drinking. Before our walk, I was out in the woods, splitting wood and drinking cheap vodka that I had transferred to a water bottle so that nobody would catch me. It was months later that I would make myself very sick, and subsequently get sober. 

But that day I was the drunken prodigal son, trying to do something my father not could only relate to, but something that would take him back to his old friends, that could compare to his own nifty skills as a handy-man—you should have seen the lovely axe handle that I was unable to deal with—and take him back to what he loved in his son, and wanted for him more than anything. For his son to be capable, and, for his own sake—my own sake—capable of something simple and physical, that had beauty and purpose.

I wish I could say this was the dramatic moment that led toward recovery. I can’t. It remains dramatic, but only as a sign of how deeply I am diseased, how nothing, not even that bright shame, staring me in the face, that broken axe, a gift of my father’s with lots of intended desires, could stop me. Is it part of recovery? Not then, but now it is because I am determined to remember it vividly.

I am trying to carry that moment as an emblem of shame—especially since none, or little, was felt at the time. Of the three traits of alcoholism—cunning, baffling, powerful—baffling is the one that lives in this incident. Baffling that I could be so dull to the naked idiocy I had performed—and believe me, I was. The entire episode was a joke between Alan and me, until I got sober. Now it’s a reminder. Indeed I’m trying hard to preserve it as the only active reminder in a long litany. Because all the ridiculous and shameful things I did to Jacquelyn, to myself, to my friends and to my family—they are all, in their totality, too much to bear or comprehend. They hurt too much to keep remembering. This—father, pride, woods, axe, clumsiness—suits just fine for a lifetime of instruction.

 “When making an axe handle, the pattern is not far off.” Meaning, to Pound, directly at least, that using the axe to cut wood to make a handle for itself keeps the circle close, that of the blade and the arm.

But to Gary Snyder, who taught me this, it means more: that his son, and his son’s shaping, will never be far from his own. (Snyder, much too smart to realize a son’s “shaping” would be anything more than half-successful, still understood the sanctity of the attempt.)

And so my shaping was not far off, and, although it was a failure, or perhaps best viewed as a failure for sanity’s sake. In that instant, and in that context, my shaping was visible.

Recovery implies a certain set of things: that something existed; that something was lost, or damaged; and now somehow it needs to be restored, to its original condition, or the best approximation of that condition. Compared to recovering myself from alcoholism, restoring the axe-handle might be easy. In any case, to recover either I will need help.

I have a mind to repair Dad’s original handle, and restore it to the axe head my father gave me, that his neighbor friend gave him, that lay unused in the basement for many years, while I drank. My father, artful suburbanite, has no need to split wood. But thoughtful and careful man that he is, he realized that this object, not rare or sacred but potentially essential, essential to some exercise that by its nature may not seem essential itself but is just, honest, and blameless—he kept it there in the basement for that moment, so that when that moment came it would be close at hand. And realize, please, he never envisioned the moment until I drew it out—when he would give the axe, with its new, long, beautiful and impractical handle, to his capable son—capable then only of breaking it. 

Give it to his son, hoping . . . hoping what? Perhaps nothing specific, other than the continual and vague hope that we all have in symbols, symbols that are really all we have left to give to those that we’ve raised, that have raised us, that know everything essential—I choose that word purposely—about us, and us about them. And because of that need to honor one small thing they recognize as coming from themselves, as living on in another generation, as being made from something “not far off.”

But it turned to ruin. The drunken son, the pride of the father, busted the axe handle in a mere two whacks. Years of splitting, stacking, carrying and burning wood came to nothing in a few seconds. Years of love, hope, and pride in an offspring were dashed as quickly.

Were they? Of course not. The axe head still thrives, appropriately nicked up from subsequent—and more successful—attempts to split wood, with the new, shorter handle. repaired by Alan—“something you can deal with,” he said to me laughing, not realizing how telling and grievous those words were to me. 

The beautiful broad handle my father bought and fitted, the one I broke up, can still be rescued. It’ll be a few inches shorter, but whittling it down and refitting it will bring a sense of circularity.

How broken do you have to get, before you can’t recover? It can happen. But breaking an axe handle, then fixing it, and drinking away one’s life, health, respect and friends, then stopping, making amends, are not the same thing. But like the axe handle, and the son, carved from the father, it’s different each time. The model, like Snyder says, is not far away.

and I see: Pound was an axe,

Chen was an axe, I am an axe

and my son a handle, soon 

to be shaping again, model

and tool, craft of culture, 

how we go on.

I’ve got my model, in fact, more than a model. I’ve still got part of the old tool, broken at the end, but the ends could possibly be reshaped, and refitted, and used again. I could go out to the pile of wood that’s not beech, with or without my father, with or without Alan, with or without a plastic bottle filled with vodka. I could choose any of those things, and the model is not far away, right before me.

Only part of the model makes for recovery. The piece of the beautiful handle that is left may not be enough to refit, to make whole. And if I do restore it, I’ll do it badly, with the wrong tools, whatever I have at hand, and no knowledge of how to do it properly. For guidance I’ll use Snyder’s poem, which says “in making the handle/of an axe/by cutting wood with an axe/the model is indeed near at hand.” 

Snyder, who got that from Pound, translated by his teacher Shih-hsiang Chen. Who himself got it from Lu Ji. Who got it from my father. Who gave it to me. Who will I give it to? And what will I give?