The Lexicon of Labor

From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines

Edited by Joyce Dyer, Jennifer Cognard-Black, and Elizabeth MacLeod Walls

East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2016, 317 pp. $29.95, paperback

Reviewed by Christine Byl

Franz Kafka famously called books “the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” while William Carlos Williams called the poem a “machine made out of words.” By metaphoric extension, it’s no stretch to consider the essays in this anthology tools as well. In 23 pieces on “women and their machines,” the authors wield prose in pursuit of a specific task: to think carefully and deliberately…in order to understand what our machines mean—why we need them, or if we do; where they came from, or what they might signify; and what the future holds for further integration of body and contraption.

Organized in five thematic sections—Hearth and Home; Bedroom and Birthing Room; Farm, Lawn, Hill and Wood; Stage and World; and The Writer’s Studio—the entries showcase a broad swath of female lives..

Essays throughout describe familiar experiences, the details tweaked just enough to counter stereotype. In her beloved Dodge Dart, the young Karen Salyer McElmurray teaches her mother how to drive and discovers, “She dreamed of one long highway, the way out she never took.” Emily Rapp’s typical teenage questions—“What was my body? What was its purpose?”—are complicated by her relationship with her prosthetic leg. The collection deftly expands both the terrain of women’s experience and the concept of a machine in interesting ways.

If the essays are devices for thinking, the collection itself is a tool shed, each piece hung on its hook, taken down to perform a specific duty. To plumb race and gender as they entwine in the kitchen, reach for “If You Can’t Stand the Heat,” Psyche Williams-Forson’s homage to the gas cook stove. For pushing back against the masculinization of power equipment and power itself, select Mary Quade’s standout about tractors, “Old Iron: A Restoration.” Perhaps it’s the construct of a modern self that interests you: see essays on the iPhone, the camera, the microphone. As with any collection of tools, some essays are sharper than others. But universally, they are crafted with intent.

Befitting a collection that encompasses gender and mechanization, power is a recurring theme, which makes sense to anyone who has felt confounded by an unfamiliar machine—or emancipated by learning to use one well. The book opens with a section on familiar domestic contraptions—sewing machine, washer, iron, cook stove—and rightly reclaims the status of machine for objects that have been historically “feminized” out of that category. “Maytag Washer, 1939” is a well-placed opener, and Norma Tilden’s observation refracts over the rest of the book: “we would learn what it meant to be born a woman: the intricate mechanics of beauty and use.” Joyce Dyer’s wide-ranging essay “My Mother’s Singer” beautifully explores the braided history of feminism as it is expressed in the push-pull of home-making, balancing the political (the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire) with the personal (“for [my mother], domesticity was a ruse”). My fondness for this essay is high praise, in light of how much more times I have run a chainsaw than a sewing machine. My own seamstress-mother shakes her head that at 43, I still ask her to patch my Carhartts.

In their introduction, the editors nod to the genre-as-tool conceit when they state, to write—to be a woman writer—is, in one way, to be both mechanical and a mechanic. We still call punctuation and grammar the “mechanics” of writing, and even language itself is a technology.

When I read this, my mind lit straight to the word’s origin, which is from the Greek techne—meaning “art,” “craft,” or “skill” (related to tekton, meaning “carpenter”)—and logos—“word.” Thus, “technology” can be roughly translated as “words about craft.” It’s fascinating to track a word’s path and find at the end a revelatory surprise: writer unionized with carpenter. Each uses craft in pursuit of an end, and the differences in their products only underscore the point that technology is various. Machines—abacus, vibrator, laptop—enhance human effort, whether physical (build house), philosophical (deconstruct race), personal (give orgasm), or artistic (write book).

Tools require specialized language that arises from their use. “The part of a hit-and-miss engine that regulates speed is called the governor,” explains Mary Quade. My own childhood vocabulary was textured by my parents’ machines—my mother’s Singer, thimble, and treadle; my surveyor-father’s theodolite and plumb-bob. In my early twenties, when I started as a rookie on a trail crew, I cradled my sore muscles in bed and fell asleep to the cadence of the new words running through my mind—mattock, Swede hook, Dolmar, pulaski. My lifelong career in labor has in part been fueled by a love for the lexicon of labor, and a highlight of this anthology was the technical diction enfolded in its pages.

Its sentences show women in motion—mowing, sewing, driving, sawing, eating, typing, birthing, writing, shooting—and many pieces carve out their own linguistic territories. In Rebecca McClanahan’s “Sad Iron, Glad Iron,” the act of pressing shirts becomes incantatory: “Iron and sing, iron and sing, the world falls away, placket and pleat, collar and yoke, ruffle and pocket, bodice and sleeve. Steam, release.” Maureen Stanton, in a riff on the scythe, the ancestor of her beloved lawnmower, lists its “poetically named parts: snath, toe, tang, ring, beard, heel, grips and chine.” The essay’s immediate concern is the history of a gas engine, but underneath lies a shadow story of losing a beloved to cancer. Like the best essays in the collection, Stanton’s weaves two narratives, examining impotence from opposite angles: how tools grant manual power, and how unexpected loss reinforces our powerlessness.

Learning how machines work is captivating stuff, and I admire the essays that pull back the narrative curtain and stride into the repair shop. In “Swingline Nine,” Jen Hirt illuminates the physics behind a desk-based contraption whose mechanics usually get little notice: “The stapler is a simple machine, in the same category as pulleys and axles ... Even when staplers went electric or morphed into heavy-duty staple guns, it was always just fulcrum, load, effort.” Essays in every section delve into nuts-and-bolts terrain, and I littered the margins of my book with stars and exclamation points next to mechanical and historical insights: who knew that World War I-era Lansing, Michigan, was the birthplace of the lawnmower and home to a minor-league baseball team called the Lugnuts?

Williams followed his line about the poem as machine with these words: “Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy.” From Curlers to Chainsaws isn’t academic per se, but many essays carry a load of scholarship, often with agility, sometimes more woodenly. I was grateful for the lyric pieces in the collection, their “perfect economy” balancing the academic default. I get it—many of the authors here are professors, whose most familiar tool is argument—but the more sinuous essays provide a welcome stylistic variety and tonal counterpoint. Notable is Joy Castro’s taut and haunting lyric essay, “Grip,” about a Ruger GP .357 handgun. She places a bullet-riddled paper target above her infant son’s crib, a bulwark against the domestic abuse of her childhood—“the violence of our years with [our father], knifed into us like scrimshaw cut in living bone.” To her the target represents a hope for safety, “a sort of oath I swore over your quiet sleep.” The poet Nikky Finney’s essay on the pencil closes the book, with an intellectual coming-of-age narrative that stays light on its feet:

A pencil could be said to have a mind of its own. The dark, sweet mind of a pencil had to be nurtured and lured out into sunshine ... You could sign your life away with a pen and never know what happened to your life.

Every tool can fail, of course. Pencil tips break. Engines bog down. Vibrators run out of batteries. The breadth of machines covered here is wide, but the collection would have benefitted from even more angles, whether indigenous, international, or otherly gendered. Perhaps because of the demographic uniformity, the emotional range of the essays in aggregate was a bit uniform—part nostalgic, part activist, mostly redemptive. Though individual pieces skirted rough edges, I craved more consistent complication. Don’t useful tools sometimes cause harm? What about the costs of mechanization? What of apprenticeship that ends in disempowerment?

The inconsistency shared by most edited volumes also occurs here. Some essays feel too thematically determined—the word “plodding” arose often in my reading notes—and others that succeed in content don’t vault the high bar of the stand-alone essay, lacking a through-line or a subsurface story to anchor the obvious one. Despite these flaws, the majority of essays use specific machines to build scaffolding from which to interrogate larger ideas. The very best ones do so with aplomb, moving from musical lines to nuanced thoughts that double back on themselves in fruitful ways.

Perhaps the volume’s greatest accomplishment is how effortlessly it puts to rest the notion that a woman who loves a machine is an anomaly, or worse, something to be fetishized. Any woman who expresses an iota of mechanical aptitude has heard patronizing comments: Wow, you change your own oil? This book doesn’t bother to defend its premise: of course women use machines, and of course we love them. While these essays include men—fathers, lovers, neighbors—and allude to the male gaze, here the most prominent watchers are women, seeing themselves. Karen Outen puts it well in her engrossing essay on typing: “In the end, our lives, our work, are all about sight—foresight, hindsight, insight, salvaged sight.”

The next book I yearn for is an anthology about tools where women appear equally alongside men—where we shed our identity marker and join the ranks of all those humans whose lives are made better, worse, complex, or interesting by the tools to which we apply our hands and minds. As Ana Maria Spagna writes in “More Than Noise,” about her years on a trail crew: “A woman running a chainsaw might surprise hikers or strangers at picnic-table dinner parties ... But after fifteen years, my gender made little difference.”

Intention well applied becomes effort, and any task bears its evidence: a dug hole is surrounded by heaps of dirt. Sawdust covers the floor after boards are cut. A haircut leaves an itchy film on apron and neck. By this book’s close, there is also residue. A litany of machines, scenes, and terms circled my mind, prodding further questions, notes jotted in margins. If the writer’s task is completed, the larger job is still unfinished. I’d guess that this anthology will prompt readers to write, think, and tell machine stories of their own.

Christine Byl is a professional trail-builder and designer, and the author of Dirt Work: An Education In the Woods (2013). She lives in Interior Alaska.

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