There’s something enchanting about old tools. Not power tools, but rather the ones that require maybe a little sweat, a little swearing and more than a little skill to use. They’re the ones that live in sheds or hang in garages like old mysteries gathering dust and perhaps a little dulled but still so useful to the hand that knows how to wield them.

These tools are relics of a time when people still made things and made them well. In some cases, these tools made things and kept the world running before I was born. Made things I’ll never see and yet when I look at them and sometimes play with them (because that’s all I really know how to do) I imagine a world in which we didn’t throw things out the moment they broke.

My first hammer

There’s solidity to those old tools hanging around and still ready despite the shiny power tools that can do a job faster but will themselves be recycled long before they’ll ever be passed on. These are the tools I was given as a kid and the ones I inherited from my grandfather and my dad who I’ve assisted (because that’s all I’m good for when it comes to carpentry) on a few projects.

Dave Bonta’s new chapbook Odes to Tools (Phoenicia, 2010) has gotten me looking at and appreciating these old tools in my garage all over again. The poems originally appeared on Dave’s blog Via Negativa (you can still read them there) but in book form they become like the tools themselves, somehow sturdier in their stately analog elegance.

My favorite in the collection is the ode to one of my favorite tools, the coping saw, a tool I’ve used, misused and loved longer than most others. (What a glorious day it was when I learned I could replace that rusty old blade!) In Dave’s writing, this most space-hogging and least dense of tools becomes a jumping off point for examining ideas bigger than the tool itself, and the coping saw’s sturdy flexibility becomes a near-Taoist metaphor for the strength found in yielding, a certain wisdom in emptiness. From “Ode to a Coping Saw”:

Perhaps because it is flexible
& maneuverable


or because it encompasses
so much empty space

it copes.

It’s a fine collection, well worth multiple readings, and like the tools it celebrates, I suspect it will never stop working no matter how long it may sit on the shelf between reads.