Guest Post, Meghan McClure: In Praise of the Physical World

Matthew Nienow’s House of Water

Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2016. 57 pages. $15.95.


Picture of the book House of Water by Matthew NienowFor the past few months I’ve been unmoored, I feel against everything. I think a lot of us do. During this time I’ve turned, as I always have in difficult times, to books. I’ve found myself drawn to two types of books, both of which seem relevant and necessary. The first kind are those that teach me to see through the eyes of others, show me the history of how we got here, give voice to the often unheard, teach me to resist, give me strength to fight back. The second type of book I’ve been drawn to are those which praise the physical world, look with wonder at the earth and its inhabitants, draw the eye to the light. The books of the first kind have been my maps and guides. The second kind of book has been an anchor for me. In these times of upheaval and uncertainty I am seeking things that ground me to the world, that re-invest me in this place. I want to hold something in my hands, to know that it is real, to remember I’m not against everything. The poems in Matthew Nienow’s House of Water are as close to that as poems can be.

Built in to each of the poems in House of Water is a commitment to the physical world. Readers cannot escape the smell of seawater, the heat of fire, the shavings of wood beneath their feet, the laughter of children, or the rock of a boat. The book begins with a prayer to the tools of his trade (he builds boats) and continues with odes to those tools (“Ode to the Belt Sander & This Cocobolo Sapwood,” “Ode to the Steam Box,” “Ode to the Gain,” “Ode to the Preacher Jig,” “Ode to the Slick”), joy in the work of creation, and quiet moments of watching his wife and children. Nienow begins with the tools, but from there goes on to praise the body which uses the tools, the life that is created, and the work it all takes.

These poems are about learning to look closely at the things we hold daily. In Nienow’s case these things are tools and woods I’m unfamiliar with, but came to admire as I read through the book. In “Ode to the Belt Sander & This Cocobolo Sapwood” Nienow holds up a block of wood to the belt sander and:


A single knot blinks

out of the small block & becomes


the eye of a hummingbird, its beak

bending around the edge of the wood,


its song captured in the annular rings.

To think, this block was tossed in


with the scrap. That the bird

could have been lost. Or burned.


How quickly the mundane scrap of a day can become a thing to behold. The world still holds mystery and wonder. Sometimes that mystery is locked away in a block of wood, sometimes it is hidden in a page of scribbled notes waiting to become a poem. Nienow shows the reader how to hold a scrap in their hand, hold it to the light, and get to work uncovering its beauty.

At first glance “The Handshake” seems like a shout against the body and work:


God damn my hands

and the inward ache

that is the echo of every


hammer swing; God

damn every struck thing

and the impulse to make.


God damn the scars

and the memories they bear,

the fists I carry with me


everywhere; God damn

all that my hands fail

to hold…



But in the refrain of  “God damn…” we hear the echo of “God bless.” Instead of reading of anger and resentment, the pain and shame of this poem become an ode all their own: to the hands (“my two best tools”) that long to create, that come from a long line of hands (“I remember / my father’s father”), and that get to shape their future:


I consider

the road. My handshake


will not tell you

what kind of man I am.


This poem is a reminder that we can howl against the pain in our lives and still hold our lives dear. We can see the darkness of the world and still want to make it brighter. Sometimes the very hands that hurt are the hands that will create something that gleams.

Halfway through the book, in “Song of Tomorrow,” the speaker wants to give the world, whole and shining, to his children: “I will give / them whatever I have, whatever I can acquire.” But he also knows he will not be able to give them all he desires to, he is “ a man trying / to hold water in cupped hands” knowing he “will fail / to hold it.” But even in that failing he knows “what joy there is in feeling it pass.” Throughout the book Nienow balances praise of the physical with the knowledge that it will never be enough. Nienow’s book is not a glossy ode to the perfect, but an ode to the scraped and dented imperfect life we create with our hands. There is joy not just in the material or the tools, but in the process of creation – the life we live.

By the time we get to “Making a Rabbet Plane in the Machine Shop on the Hill” we have praised the materials, the tools, and the process of creation, but here we watch the speaker work. The worker has to dig into his collection of tools with his aching hands and put them into action. In this collection of poems, the speaker is never more than a line or two away from work. Above all, the work is to be praised:


I turn

the idea of the tool over in my hands.

That it works makes me want to work.

The work, it carves that want away.



Nienow shows, through his writing, the work it takes to chisel, bend, and sand raw material down to a useful object and how that work itself is beautiful. When we look at the world there is endless wonder, but wonder alone won’t change anything, it takes work. This is not a book merely of ideas, but of tools, material, and what they create. Nienow finds beauty in the world because he works to make it.

We need things to tether us to this earth. We need to find reminders of the immensity and wonder this earth holds – it will give us the energy to move forward when it feels like we can’t. We need to create wonder of our own and to find joy and solace in the work of creating. As writers, this book is a reminder to stay observant and alert and curious in our work. And above all, to love the work.

Stand up, march, protest, yell, read to inform yourself, carry a sign, volunteer, donate. And when you get weary and start losing hope, recharge with a book that tethers you to this world. Because we have to stay invested in this place, in each other. Writers need to keep writing about the things that matter to them, sharing their stories because like the famous Maggie Smith poem, “Good Bones,” says: “This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful.” To work to make it beautiful, we have to remember it’s worth it.

More book recommendations for mooring you to this earth:

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón

System of Ghosts by Lindsay Tigue

World of Made and Unmade by Jane Mead

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay

Trouble the Water by Derrick Austin

Guest Blog Post, Meghan McClure: Fact at a Slant

“But knowledge does not vanquish mystery, or obscure its distant lights.” –Annie Dillard

EncyclopediasIt starts with reading.  May I suggest textbooks.  Or field guides.  Your mother’s old shopping lists.  Ancient political analysis. Or found notes1.   The Internet is fine, but I find that the succinct voice found in a book lends itself to more found lyricism and it keeps you from falling down the hyperlink rabbit hole.  Though sometimes the rabbit hole is just what you need.  Proceed at your own risk – unlike glass cats you can’t always just toss out facts, they get stuck 2.  Of course, feel free to find facts elsewhere: nature, science labs, the surface of the moon, your daughter’s hands, the ache of a cold settling in your chest.

I see facts as trinkets, things to collect, show off, and easily broken.  On learning the way ionic compounds worked in high school I was giddy as an 85-year-old woman who found the perfect glass cat for her immaculately dusted collection.  I tucked it in with the facts I’ve been gathering since I started reading my dad’s collection of books on war.  And the encyclopedias I would smuggle into my room as a 7-year-old to learn more about Progeria and genomes.  But I must admit, I do not keep my collection neat and tidy.  I toss the trinkets in with the rest and hope when I catch a glimpse of a broken piece when I open the Curio Cabinet in my mind it will trigger a landslide of memory, emotion, words.  This is why I never re-present the facts as fact, but something that is mine.  A fact comes out at dinner as a story about how my grandfather showed me how to identify an animal skull 3 or in a poem that makes a mathematical proof contain the remnants of a long-gone relationship.  The facts are there: broken, jumbled, askew.

Now, hold tight to your fact.  Put it somewhere.  Pocket, neuron, palm of your hand 4.  Who cares where, just store it.  It’s yours to play with now.  Unlike with a glass cat, your brain knows what to do with it.  It starts connecting one fact to others and if you sit long enough with the fact and let it move about it will end up looking like the red stringed room in “A Beautiful Mind” and you can follow the yarn to the next fact.

For a few years I have had a quote written on a blue index card leaning on the shelf above my desk.  It reads: “Tell the fact but tell it slant.”  It is attributed to Emily Dickinson.  But that isn’t what she wrote 5.  I don’t know if I made this my own as I wrote it or if I subconsciously substituted fact for Dickinson’s Truth in an effort to avoid that ever-enduring conversation I dodge 6.  And will dodge even now.  What matters about this quote is that it’s led me to many poems and essays.  What matters is that I see this played out in every good book I’ve ever read.  Facts become our own and as writers, we collect them so we can use them to create works of art.

So, you’ve got a fact.  Here’s where it gets tricky.   Once you’ve collected your fact, you need to be knocked off-balance, or knock the fact off-balance.  Tilt your head when you read, get your brain off-kilter, cross your eyes, drink something strong.  Squint if need be. Or peer through one of those glass cats at it.  In other words, look indirectly at the sun so you don’t blind yourself 7.  If you look directly at fact and report it as is, you’ve merely photocopied someone else’s work – it’s just a faded version of the original.

I like to think of this stage like blurring your eyes at wood grain until you see a face or a word.  The wood grain is there for everyone to see, but then you see it, shift your perspective, and it becomes something wholly your own.  You have created something, what now?

Get it down. Work it onto the page.  Make it a fact that someone else can find, break up, make her own.  In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote: “I love the little facts, the ten percents, the fact of the real and legged borers, the cuticle-covered, secretive grubs, the blister beetles, blood flukes and mites.  But there are plenty of ways to pile the facts…”8  Maybe insects aren’t your thing, that’s okay.  Find your facts and then find your way to pile the facts, word after word.  Pile them so high that it starts to tilt, tip, then avalanche into the ever thickening, brilliantly connected pile.



(1)     Preferably from a frozen man’s bag in Antarctica that you found while on a journey.

(2)     Avoid cute videos of rabbits.  Or don’t.

(3)     A coyote skull is long and narrow with long canine teeth. Remember this, it will come in handy some day when you remember it incorrectly and try to write it as a footnote.

(4)     Ink works well for storing things on your palm.  Ignore the Surgeon General’s warning against such things.

(5)     Emily Dickinson wrote: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—”

(6)     You know the one. Truth v. truth, Fiction v. Nonfiction.  The one that makes me play mute.

(7)     More great advice from the aforementioned Dickinson poem (interpreted, by me, at a slant).

(8)     Even this ellipsis implies I’ve taken something, squinted at it, made it my own.  I’ve left something out and made this fact something that is the product of my mind.