A delightful scene is set in this poem. At the start of the new year, the speaker and some friends are doing volunteer woodwork to repair their church’s altar. As the speaker details the steps of their careful work, we’re carried along by the poem’s base rhythm of iambic pentameter. Soon religious language enters the speaker’s account: as their sawdust fills the church, they feel their labor to be “sanctified,” and the motions of their attentive work become a “ritual.” Though they’re amateur carpenters, they strive for “such perfection / as can be achieved on this job, in this lifetime.” Then, taking a break, they recall that their “patron in this place” (who is Jesus, though he’s not named) was a carpenter. But Jesus’ carpentry immediately becomes symbolic. Paintings of him at work, “a long shaving furled / round his wrist,” holds in its grain “the meaning of life and death / and pretty much everything in between.” As carpenter, they muse, could Jesus have made anything “less then perfect?” The scene then shifts, for the poem’s final stanza, back to the church that the speaker and his friends are working in. “The incense of our craft” will linger in the sanctuary during Sunday worship. And this, the speaker concludes, is all the payment they need: “an answered prayer for good work, done.” This “good work,” here and in the poem’s title, carries a double meaning: it’s work well done, but also morally good work—like that of Jesus.
—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]