issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > staples
On the Other End of the Bucksaw: Poet, Teacher, and Friendby Catherine Staples
Dan Hoffman is an exceptional teacher and friend, a marvelous mix of energy, intelligence, and wit. I believe the best teachers wake you to the world in some essential way; this is especially true for Dan. Certainly he woke us to language, to the question of whether the lines before us were merely prose broken into line breaks or truly heightened, lyric language. Some of my favorite assignments in his craft class involved translations. Although I'd read Pound's "River Merchant's Wife" before, I remember being thrilled to the core when he set before us a rough translation of the Chinese characters, and we set about trying to make poetry of it. Seeing the rough translation set side by side with Pound's lines was like seeing a pane of ice over the frozen, whitened grass: you could see through to the original, but at the same time there was something more; we began to see the lyric compression and beauty. In another assignment, he asked us to describe the ideal childhood and education of a poet. As a mother, that assignment was hardly theoretical; it purposefully shaped my days for years after the writing of the piece. It seems fitting that one of my three children—and, as fate would have it, the one I was pregnant with while taking Dan's class—is a now a writer.
At the semester's end, we gathered on Dan and Liz's Swarthmore porch. I am not sure whether it was lilac or wisteria edging the porch—but it seemed the whole world was in bloom that spring. I remember him gathering us at the foot of the steps for a photograph, and saying that one day some of us would have books, and might even be famous! What we all felt was a sense of belonging and a commitment to the craft. I met two of my most wonderful poet friends in Dan's class. And on that balmy spring day, I first met his lovely wife Liz. I don't know how many will recall the wonderful New York Times photograph of Dan and Liz with Marianne Moore. Marianne Moore's gaze is striking and ought to command the picture, but she's eclipsed by the beautiful chemistry between Dan and Liz. His love poems to her are among my favorites.
I do not think it's possible to choose a favorite poem of Dan's, but for pure physicality, a sense of joy in the moment, and neighborliness, there's nothing like his poem for Scott Nearing that begins with the perfectly mimicked sound of sawing:
Shsh, Zzzzz; Shh, Zzzzz:
from behind the stone house the hissing
of the bucksaw's blade in rhythm
as though the day is drawing breath—
there, at a sawhorse between two rows of cordwood
stacked five feet high and longer than the house is,
he, at ninety seven, is sawing, sawing
a twisted gnarl of maple
—of course I grab the other end and pull….
Of course he steps in. For me, this poem perfectly captures the sense of Dan as poet and friend. The lines are characteristic Hoffman: a blend of plain sense and fitting music. There's more than a touch of humor evident when, in a full sweat, flanked by wagonloads of wood, the speaker wryly asks Nearing, "how much warmer will it make your house?" From the other end of the saw, the voice is both apt and wise, "'That's not the question,' …'Each stroke" (tap-tap) 'is a lengthening'(tap-tap) / 'of life.'"