Returning the Gift

James Lasdun

for Nicholas Jenkins

For my birthday
my wife gives me a chainsaw;
a shiny blue Makita,
big as our child, heavy

as an impacted planet.
On every part of its body the makers
have slapped red warning stickers:
Stop! Danger of Death! Do Not Operate

Unless Experienced! The manual
elaborates: kickback,
where the blade bucks back through your neck;
blinding by woodchip or exploding fuel,

death by misguided tree-fall, tissue necrosis
from the engine vibrations … I look at my wife,
wondering what it means for a woman to give
her husband a gift such as this …

You said we needed one, remember?

She smiles, and it’s true;
we’re losing our meadow
to red maple, alder, poplar.

But the warnings … Do Not Operate
Unless Experienced! … For two weeks
I leave it untouched in its box,
then when I take it out,

A feeling of fear sinks through me:
must I deliberately rouse this murderous gift;
cradle its killing shaft
between my soft arms and belly;

carry it up where the old dairy pasture begins,
where the poplars loom sixty feet tall
with a sixty-foot will not to fall,
and plunge it into their skins?

Stripmall country: the chain
molecule of a shingled cinderblock cube
polymerised into hojo’s, jiffy lube,
Walmart, K-Mart, and – where we’re headed – Miron:

Museum of the American Present,
where can-do meets do-it-yourself,
where you can grab a dump-truck off the shelf
or a family-size nuclear power plant.

The chainsaw section’s
display looks like a butcher’s stall
selling various types of crocodile:
Makita, Husqvarna, Poulan … Thick festoons
of chainblade glitter rawly.
I hand my gift to the salesman,
a bearded giant, letting my wife explain.
As she talks, a glint comes into his eye:

Afraid? Afraid of what? Getting hurt?
He won’t if he’s in a right relation. Listen

He leans toward me with a twinkling grin,
Molson-muscle swelling his green plaid shirt –

British, right? I nod. That question here
puts my guard up, like are you Jewish? did
in England where it meant so you’re a yid

at least to my hypersensitive ear,

as British here means – but I’m being paranoid;
he’s got some other axe to grind: King Arthur …
Now there was a male mother,
nourishing his men on his own blood
,

know what I’m saying? I don’t. Sir Bors, Gawain …
The warrior’s gone dead in the modern male …

I signal my wife let’s go, to no avail:

Your wild man’s hurting … I can feel his pain …

Old stags like me can help young bucks like you
and it dawns on me I’m hearing
something I might have heard in a drum-filled clearing
on Bill Moyers, ten years ago –

How about I show you how to use it;
stop by your place some morning? I’d be glad to.
You could cut my
– I cut him off: No thank you,
and turn, leaving the chainsaw. Wait one minute!

I’ll make you a deal:
take the saw home for free;
buck some blowdowns before you drop a tree.
Live with it, let it settle, get a feel;

keep it a year, then if you want it, pay –
you’ll know where to find me – if not, fine.
I’m doing this for your sake, son, not mine

I’m starting to feel trapped … I can’t, I bray,

I’m sick … I have this … deep-down … clumsiness …
cellular doggerel … my adolescence
was one long chapter of accidents –
this finger pruned by a door, the rest all thumbs,

my left arm propeller-chopped like sushi;
see? The world was my banana skin.
I cracked my collarbone on a trampoline.
I caught dysentery from a bottle of Vichy.

In the birthing room, when the nurse
gave me the clippers, it took me
not one snip, not two, but three
to cut our child’s umbilicus.

Besides, I don’t approve of cutting trees;
bad for the planet, don’t you know?
He nods:

Problem is, if you don’t clear your woods,
they’ll sure as hell clear you. That’s how it is

here in America. Maybe where you’re from
you get to live as if that wasn’t so;
as if your needs all balanced long ago
and everything fits snugly in its home,

but things aren’t like that here. We still need teeth,
and not to bite our nails, as I see you do.
Either you clear your woods or they’ll clear you –
You said that! Listen: I’m afraid of death,

or, to be more exact, of my apparent
death-wish, or more accurate still,
my possibly damaged, definitely faltering will
to stay alive: each lapse an ‘accident’.

That’s all there is to say, except goodbye.

But as I turn again, he grabs my wife
who half seems to expect it: tell him, Eve;
you gave it to him, now you tell him why!

Instead of an apple, the tree
grew a ripe chainsaw:
a shiny blue Makita.
The woman plucked it and gave it to me.

Since then I have cut through a number of things:
a stand of maple and an acre of alder,
several chips on my shoulder,
the mother of all apron strings …

On every part of its body, the maker
had slapped red warnings: Stop!
Danger of Death! I took it up
to the edge of our once-clear

mountain meadow,
and where the woods had jumped the stone wall,
and a blossoming red maple
stood waving at its own shadow,

I set the throttle and choke,
yanked the starter cord:
once, twice, three times, hard as I could,
and my dubious gift awoke.