Two Hand Poems

John Keats‘ “This living hand…” is one of the awesomest little poems ever. It’s so wonderful and so creepy! The speaker’s hand, if it were dead, would “So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights / That thou would wish thy own heart dry of blood / So that in my veins red life might stream again.” And that final gesture, Keats’ no, here it is, alive, “I hold it towards you” — ooh! Shivers. I will be bringing this poem up again come Halloween. This poem is genuinely haunting — the message is first that you’ll miss me, then that I’ll haunt you, then that you’ll want to die to resurrect me, but no no no don’t worry, here’s my hand (that will haunt you!).

Charles Simic has a memorable poem called “Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand,” a poem that describes each finger in turn, images going from Gerhard Gluck-y to Odilon Redon-y (the creepy paintings, not the flower-in-a-vase ones) to Hieronymous Bosch-y. (A bestiary, by the way, is something they especially liked in medieval times, books of information about and illustrations of beasts, imaginary and real,  that included spiritual lore and allegories in addition to physical descriptions.)

Simic’s finger descriptions start out interesting and get weird fast. The thumb, for instance, is a “loose tooth of a horse” and “Rooster to his hens. / Horn of a devil” at the beginning of the section, but by the end the thumb can “take care / Of himself. Take root in the earth. / Or go hunting with wolves.”  As soon as you start to picture it, it gets weird. Look down at your thumb, then picture it disconnected from your hand, watch it sink into loam, then roam out in the woods, a hand-less thumb, hunting wolves. Do you picture it regular thumb-size, in relation to the wolves, or does it become a wolf-sized thumb?

The second finger not only “points the way” but “points to himself.” “The middle one has backache” (“has backache,” not has a backache — condition not momentary ailment) and is

An old man at birth. It’s about something
That he had and lost,
That he looks for within my hand,
The way a dog looks
For fleas
With a sharp tooth.

Where the thumb was still a digit, though independent, the middle finger becomes something else entirely, an old man who is like a dog.

The poem winds up with the pinkie, of course, and brings the poem, after all those weird images, back to heretofore-unmentioned functional: “It takes the mote out of the eye.”

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