The 1965 edition of Julia Randall’s The Puritan Carpenter on my bookshelf is my wife’s. It was given to her by a college professor who inspired us both, and inside is an inscription from that professor that includes “a mutual hope that in us lies poetry as ‘cold and passionate as the dawn’ or that at the least, we have the yes to see ‘in a poet’s sight.’” It’s a beautiful aspiration from an amazing teacher.
The Puritan Carpenter is a perfect book for a teacher to give a student entering adulthood. At times formal, at others subtly structured as if to lull the reader into an imagined sense of informality, Randall’s poems know tradition and convention enough to honor the past even as they challenge it to adapt to more modern truths.
“I think, old bone, the world’s not with us much,” she writes in “To William Wordsworth from Virginia. Conversational, allusionary, smart… for the brilliant young woman my wife was when given this book, the gift of The Puritan Carpenter is in part an acknowledgement that as a reader the student has the chops to laugh at the right time, nod knowingly when appropriate, and appreciate the juxtaposition of structure and sass.
Even as Randall toys with rhyme and tucks a self reflective narrative voice in amongst allusions to the classics, she fashions poems that whisper truths about the human condition.
Rereading The Puritan Carpenter with that professor’s words in my mind made me appreciate the confidence she had in my wife and the certainty that while she might not get every reference at eighteen, she would sometime soon. That kind of belief, so precious in the world of education, is something every parent hopes for her son or daughter may someday experience. As a principal I know that when a teacher believes in a student, really believes, and shows that student trust and support, the results can be profound.
But as frequent and occasionally obscure as the Randall’s allusions can be, her poems ring with a music knit together by powerful language and polished rhythm and rhyme.
I wish you were not flying, and I wish
Women were not fond, and men were not foolish.
Who’d ever invent
Wings of wax, that had godsent
Patience-plumes to plumb her element?”
The bell may ring with a clearer peal if one has Icarus in mind, but the timbre is rich even if the specificity of the reference sends one to Bullfinch and they simply realize the bell is bronze.
But like so much poetry, Randall provides verse that invites personal connection.
This summer my school packed up and moved to a temporary home across town as the original building, a sturdy building from the late 1940s, was razed to make room for a modern campus. Many of us felt the loss of the grand old structure, which meant so much to us in spite of its flaws and age, and the poem that resonated with me as we ended the school year and gave the building over to the bulldozers and backhoes was the first in this collection, “Rockland”
Masters, be kind to the old house that must fall,
Burn, or be bulldozed. The apples have grown small
And the ivy great here. The walk must be moved once more
Beyond the holly. Do not use the side door,
The lilies have broken the step. If you fix it,
They will break it again; they live under the stone.
There is blown glass
In three windows; hold them up with a stick.
The smoke is always thick
With the first fire. The Landseer in the attic
Was tacked there when I came. There is a snake
With a red tongue in the terrace; he has never been known
To hurt. The worst leak
Is in the bedroom ceiling. So. It was a good house
For hands to patch, a boon to August eyes. And when
The moon lay on the locusts, and the stream
Croaked in the bottom, muted by high grass,
Small rustlings in the woodlot, birdcries, was
A minister like music. Should I say
This—with the apple tree—was Sirmio,
This—with the two-year parsley—Twickenham,
Aldworth, or Abbotsford, I would only mean
We lease one house in love’s divided name.”
Good poems can provide comfort and perspective (just as good poems can challenge, jar, and instigate) and The Puritan Carpenter offers a smart set of literary gems for the student willing to put in the work of unpacking them.
I wish for everyone a book of poetry that makes them feel and makes them think and a teacher who believes in them enough to recommend something as beautiful and challenging as The Puritain Carpenter.
Continuing this year of poetry next week with Octavio Paz’s’s A Draft of Shadows.