‘Tools,’ by John Updike


I’d not read much of John Updike’s poetry until recently, (though I’ve long counted his “Gertrude and Claudius” (2000) and “The Centaur” (1963) among my favorite contemporary novels). It’s engaging stuff, and this one in particular spoke to me as I used my great-grandfather’s farriers’ pliers to pull nails this weekend.


Tell me, how do the manufacturers of tools
turn a profit? I have used the same clawed hammer
for forty years. The screwdriver misted with rust
once slipped into my young hand, a new householder’s.
Obliviously, tools wait to be used: the pliers,
notched mouth agape like a cartoon shark’s; the wrench
with its jaws on a screw; the plane still sharp enough
to take its fragrant, curling bite; the brace and bit
still fit to chew a hole in pine like a patient thought;
the tape rule, its inches unaltered though I have shrunk;
the carpenter’s angle, still absolutely right though I
have strayed; the wooden bubble level from my father’s
meagre horde. Their stubborn shapes pervade the cellar,
enduring with a thrift that shames our wastrel lives.

About fitz

Woodworker, writer, editor, teacher, ailurophile, Shakespearean. Will write for air-dried walnut.
This entry was posted in Personal Favorites. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to ‘Tools,’ by John Updike

  1. This is going on the wall of my shop.

  2. nrhiller says:

    Sitting at the desk with this &*^% respiratory infection that has me feeling completely out of sorts (and definitely not safe to work in the shop) has one benefit: I get to read this post hot off the metaphorical press. What a sharp and luscious putting-together of words this is. Thank you for brightening my day.

  3. Jerry Dye says:

    It looks as tho I need to explore John Updike before shuffling off this mortal coil.

  4. Russell Pitner says:

    Megan, You really are a MASTER Wordsmith, in your own right. No wonder you are such a wonderful editor for the wanna-bees. Thanks.

  5. JC says:

    Gotta love subtext and words like wastrel. I am never far from a hard hide dictionary when I read. Thanks for the edification, Fitz.

  6. karynlie says:

    Where there’s a need, there will be a tool. I needed a Tool poem today. Thanks!

  7. royunderhill says:

    Also Updike, 1958 – A Wooden Darning Egg

    The carpentered hen
    unhinges her wings
    abandons her nest
    of splinters, and sings.
    The egg she has laid
    is maple and hard
    as a tenpenny nail
    and smooth as a board.
    The grain of the wood
    embraces the shape
    as brown feathers do
    the rooster’s round nape.
    Under pressure of pride,
    her sandpapered throat
    unwarps when she cries
    Cross-cut! ka-ross-cut!
    Beginning to brood,
    she tests with a level
    the angle, sits down,
    and coos Bevel bevel.


  8. flatironjoe says:

    Simply wonderful. And nice addition by The Woodwright. I may have to read up on some Updike.

  9. nbreidinger says:

    Adding “wastrel” to my daily vocabulary.

  10. richmondp says:

    My favorite Updike prose on the subject of carpentry, especially meaningful to those whose houses are “rectilinearly challenged:”

    We recently had a carpenter build a few things in our house in the country. It’s an old house, leaning away from the wind a little; its floors sag gently, like an old mattress. The carpenter turned his back on our tilting walls and took his vertical from a plumb line and his horizontal from a bubble level, and then went to work by the light of these absolutes. Fitting his planks into place took a lot of those long, irregular, oblique cuts with a ripsaw that break an amateur’s heart. The bookcase and kitchen counter and cabinet he left behind stand perfectly up-and-down in a cockeyed house. Their rectitude is chastening. For minutes at a stretch, we study them, wondering if perhaps it isn’t, after all, the wall that is true and the bookcase that leans. Eventually, we suppose, everything will settle into the comfortably crooked, but it will take years, barring earthquakes, and in the meantime we are annoyed at being made to live with impossible standards.

    John Updike
    From “Assorted Prose.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s