Ode to a Hatchet

This entry is part 7 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools

This hatchet hasn’t bitten
through a neck in twenty years.
When we raised poultry,
it was in weekly use,
& also had regular dates
with the bench grinder:
a grating hiss, & a bright
new smile would open
in century-old rust.
The back of the head flares
into a hammer,
lending heft & balance
to this almost-cross
& making it easy to hang
from a pair of nails.
In a museum in Pittsburgh
I saw a hatchet
that was also a peace pipe
with a bowl opposite the blade
& the handle drilled out:
a two-faced tool for political campaigning.
Whether depriving one’s opponents
of their fleshy skullcaps
or making the circuit
of a smoke-filled room,
its true role was to mime death,
to undergo burial,
should diplomacy demand it,
its windpipe stopped up with dirt
in a grave shallow enough to allow
quick disinterment.
A sacred thing, meant to circle
from role to role.
A hatchet can even carve
its own next body,
the model for which —
as Confucius once pointed out —
is always frighteningly close.

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4 Comments


  1. Thanks. Yeah, I’m working on my own translation of the folk-poem from the Book of Odes which Confucius was quoting, and will post that later on today along with the passage from the Doctrine of the Mean that Snyder drew on. I believe the original poem was actually laden with sexual double entendre (though I can’t prove it).

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  2. I love this. ” A gleaming new moon would rise from century-old rust.” Used to watch my dad performing this feat on the old foot pedal grinding wheel .

    and “Whether depriving one’s opponents
    of their fleshy halos
    or making the circuit
    of a smoke-filled room,”

    Although hard to detach my myself from my current angst about the smoke filled rooms and real politics in present day Pennsylvania, I loved the duality of this indian image. Part peace pipe to be sent around the sacred circle, and part scalper, (provided the ‘halos’ were the diadem of hair we all seem to cultivate. ) Now I could have this wrong, as I so often do, but I guess the freedom of good poetic image is its ability to mean different things to different people, as you just illustrated with Confucius having a different ax to grind than the ‘earthier’ version I liked. (grin)

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  3. No, you got that exactly right (or at least as I intended). I’m glad this resonated with you.

    We have an old treadle-operated grindstone, inherited from my paternal grandparents, but it was a museum piece for us (literally: we kids had a small museum in the old tool shed, featuring many cool old tools such as a hand-cranked winnowing machine and a big ol’ hay cradle).

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