Gene Myers
Cole Swensen

7 Questions About Hands

The three poems as they are presented in nc3 move from hands to  seeing to believing, thriving and learning to listening, which is an  ambitious progression for the narrator. But these three poems are  part of a larger collection, do they mirror the progression of the collection, or is there a different arc?

The collection is divided into seven sections, which look at hands from seven different perspectives, each of which is fairly different from the others. There's a section on how hands move/what hands do, such as grasp or fan or wave, and another on their evolutionary history, another on their specific anatomy, another on American Sign Language, another on hands in paintings, and so on. So the book doesn't have a single arc or a progression per se, but tries to approach the hand from all directions. My hope was that the hand would begin to refract, begin to seem to be everywhere you turned and implicated in all aspects of human experience. Because I think it is—implicated in all aspects of human experience, that is. There's a recurring theme of definition running through the book as well, in which the hand is defined as so many things that everything becomes the hand, which was another way of asserting its centrality to human experience.

Where did the impetus for the series come from?

I've always used hands in my poetry, often metaphorically. I've always been aware that it's a very charged word and item for me, and, I got to thinking I was using it too much, so I thought I'd exhaust it as a touchstone by simply writing it out of itself. Or let's say, I thought it would be interesting to see if you could exhaust a word as charged as that one. It has accumulated its tremendous charge because the hand is the symbol of our humanity. The prehensile grip and the opposable thumb were the evolutionary prerequisites of culture. The hand is also, quite literally, what connects us to the world. It's the primary way we touch the world; it constitutes a bridge between an isolated individual and all other people, animals, and objects. It's literally what feeds us.

As to whether such a charged word can be exhausted, I think that it can't, that, in fact, the more pressure that's put on it, the more meaning it accrues. This is something that interests me about words in general—how they can be used so that their meanings are continually augmented. Each time a word is used, it is used in a unique circumstance, so in a sense, its meaning changes with each use, and every meaning is unique, but joins all the others accruing to that word. The more a word is used, the larger it gets. Words can't be worn out, they can only grow.

Re: impetus, I should also say that I got the idea from another book titled "The Book of a Hundred Hands" by George Bridgman, which is a how-to drawing manual on hands. I saw it one evening in a used bookstore and was immediately struck by the title, and then further by the lovely drawings and the lovely vocabulary it contained. It goes into the anatomy in detail, giving the names of all the muscles and tendons, etc.

If I were to divide the poems into two columns, I would put "dark purple sky," "me," "human," as well as "one," "enter," "neural point," "gravitation," "windowsill," and "forests," on one side of  the column (among others) and "lightning," "signs," "murmurs," "pillars," and "revolving door," on the other side.  It seems like  the poems pit starting points or sources against mile markers. Is this the kind of wrestling that you were aiming for?

What a fascinating thing to do! I don't think I'd see it all that way, so am doubly intrigued by your impulse here. It seems that you're putting living things on one side and non-living on the other, so that puts a lot of pressure on the question of what is it to be living. I think part of what I was trying to do was to use hands to bring the quality of living-ness to all things—as if hands were uniquely able to channel a kind of life and make it available universally. This is related to what I said above about definition—and the notion that such definitions are contagious or transferable, so that the hand transforms into a sail or a stairway or a wind by transferring its life to it, resulting in a true sail, stairway, wind, etc., but one that’s strangely or differently inhabited from the usual. 

Hands have long been thought to have the power to heal; why should they not also be able to confer life, even if only through the stunning example they offer.

It seems like the hands belong in both columns, the hands are both  the cause and effect. Did you struggle with the poems to be this precise, or did they flow out (from your hands)?

I like the way you put that—the hands are both cause and effect, and in the world of the book, they become everything—they're the characters and the story and the language in which it's told. And I wouldn't say "struggle," but yes, I worked the poems over and over; it was precisely a sense of precision that I was after, and in this case, it felt like a chiseling-down process was the way to get that precision. Often the poems began rather long, and then got pared down.

Who is the narrator? 

This and the following question are interesting in that the notion of a narrator is a bit slippery in this book. Narrator calls up the notion of narrative, and there isn’t one here, so that makes me ask not so much who, but what the “I” is when it appears. Perhaps it is a commentator, though often what it does/says takes more the form of a testimony; it testifies in the sense of standing as proof of human experience; that at the bottom of all events, there is an individual who feels, and who is changed by what s/he feels.

Each time an “I” appears, it’s a different voice/person. Sometimes it’s specific, though it is never named, and it is never me. Instead it is the possibility of taking a stance, of generating or constituting a specific point of view, thus the ability to focus perception, to address the specific, the concrete, the actual as opposed to the conceptual, the abstract.

“We” is used much more frequently in the book than “I” is, and it functions very differently. It is always a very general “we,” a “we” that is constituted by the articulation of the word, and that is perhaps, more than anything else, the dream of a common human mind, or if not that, at least the dream of a link that binds all humans, a thread. As language is potentially that thread, if there is one, then a single word should do.

What is the narrator searching for?

I rephrase this in my mind as “What is the book searching for?” or “What is the book trying to do?” It’s searching for humanity—and it finds it quite readily, and everywhere. It’s trying to articulate humanity. Trying to find a way to speak the human, to distill the human from the chaos of existence, just to have the chance to look at it a little, and to celebrate it. And particularly to celebrate human effort, to acknowledge that we are continually climbing out of primeval matter; it’s a never-ending process, and the patience and determination of humanity in the face of this is so deeply moving.

The forms of the poems also seem carefully balancing lines like   "to live in the dark equally happily" and "Lantern, lantern!" against each other. How did you come up with the forms for these poems?

I want to say “intuitively” but then must immediately question what that means—how does it differ from “arbitrarily” or “capriciously”? I tried to use spacing to create tension, and was, throughout, very conscious of line breaks—how information is dispensed in increments, which is a given with language, so I was constantly thinking about how placement could maximize the emotional effects of those increments. I also wanted to balance sparser, airier poems against denser prose poems to create a dynamic among different speeds, different kinds of momentum.

As far as the sparser ones go, I think one wants to feel the body moving across the page; of course it’s not the body that moves, it’s the eyes, but the muscles register an echo of that motion—as they say that when you hear a note, your throat muscles automatically move into position to sing it—and this gives poetry a kinetic dimension. I often work with a rocking motion, or a leaping one, simply because I like the activity, and the physical leap I think cues the reader into the possibility of parallel leaps in logic and other sorts of coherence.

Prose poems do something very different kinetically—they push forward; there’s always something a little relentless about a prose poem—it has forward thrust and sweep; the reader has less purchase, is carried along by a current, and thus has less chance to participate, to stop and reflect, to talk back to the text; instead, the gaze is kept forward. While perhaps more passive, there can be a pleasure to being swept along; it can offer a moment of respite, a little free ride.