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B.H. Fairchild: Poet from the Heart of an American Era


B.H. Fairchild talks about his life as a poet with Fordham students and staff at a reading on the Rose Hill campus.
Photo by Chris Taggart

In introducing visiting poet B.H. Fairchild, Angela O’Donnell, lecturer in English and American Catholic Studies, remarked that his poems imaginatively recreate the places they describe, enabling readers “to see and hear and smell everything just as it must have been.” As a child growing up in the heartland of America in the 1950s, Fairchild worked in his father’s metal shop, an experience which made him practiced in two things: the fine, detailed skill of working with the lathe; and the cool, discerning eye that comes from working with strangers.

The award-winning author of The Art Of The Lathe (Alice James Books, 1998) gave a reading on April 11 at the Rose Hill campus, offering vibrant, nostalgic poems that recall his childhood and youth in Texas and Kansas; and, more precisely, his father’s machine shop near Highway 54, the main north-south road to Route 66.

“A lot of hitchhikers would come there and stop, wanting one or two weeks work, just enough to get some food and money,” he recalled, “My father would hire them.”

In “The Grey Man,” Fairchild wrote of cutting weeds with such a stranger: a man with “eyes set in concrete” who has “a dead, leathern pall upon his skin so vile it makes you pull away.” In another poem, “Beauty,” Fairchild described an incident in the machine shop where two men strip naked in front of everyone; silently, suddenly, and shockingly.

“I was a boy; I didn’t even have the word ‘exhibitionism’ in my vocabulary,” he recalled. “But I know what happened was important. That entire day, none of the other men in the shop spoke to each other.”

Fairchild also recited two poems around the bored, thrill-seeking youth of the desolate towns he grew up in. In “What He Said,” he described a young man so obsessed with Brigitte Bardot that he proclaims “I would walk on my tongue from here to Amarillo just to wash her dishes.’ To Fairchild’s literary ear, the uncharacteristic expression of feeling constituted “a rise into poetry by pure accident.” In another poem, “Rave On,” the author recalls spending a Saturday night with three friends who tempt death by car-rolling.

O’Donnell, herself a poet, said the decision to invite Fairchild to Fordham had an unusual genesis. She received an e-mail from a professor entitled, “The Best Baseball Poem I’ve Ever Read.” The e-mail had circulated among other faculty members, and, O’Donnell said, people started demanding to meet the author (Fairchild). O’Donnell spearheaded the effort and received support from the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, the Bronx African American History Project, the American Studies Program and Fordham College at Rose Hill — “four groups that don’t often intersect,” she said — to bring the poet to campus.

That baseball poem, “Body and Soul,” describes a young teen who joins a sandlot baseball game with men just past their prime, and who turns out to be “a blue-eyed bringer of truth” to men who suddenly realize their youth is spent. (The teen, it turns out, is named Mickey Mantle.)

Currently the Larraine Sherley Professor of American Literature at Texas Christian University, Fairchild has been writing poetry for 30 years. The Art of the Lathe was the National Book Award finalist in 1998. Fairchild said that the hardest thing about being a poet is “finding the time to write poems.”

“I write whenever I can open up a slice of the day — which is responsible for my having become an insomniac,” he said. “Over the decades the only time I could write was after everybody else went to bed. I must say it is also a very seductive time to write, except that it puts you out of sync the next day.”

“But unless you are James Merrill (heir to Merrill Lynch), you have to work for a living,” he said.

– Janet Sassi


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