American poet Cole Swensen is a writer focused on long projects, such as her most recent poetry collection the book of a hundred hands (University of Iowa Press, 2005). Her tenth poetry collection, she is also the author of Such Rich Hour (University of Iowa Press, 2001), Oh (Apogee Press, 2002) and Goest (Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2004). Taking influence from other forums and forms, including classical history and illustration, the poems in the book of a hundred hands takes the idea of the hands as subject and completely pulls the idea of the subject apart, in nine sections including "The History of the Hand," "Professions of the Hand," "Representations of the Hand" and "American Sign Language."
THE HAND AS ANCHOR
Or there did it lodge. Or rock. Or did it stone? It to stone. The scarred just
that yet insists:
who still believes
the architecture of a ship
is derived from that of the human body or perhaps only the hand
caught, and the whole body stopped. It's a shame. (Professions of the Hand)
This isn’t the first time Swensen has taken an idea and stretched it, breaking it down into a book-length series of poems that continue to explore the small moments and divisions. In Such Rich Hour, Swensen wrote poems that were based on a fifteenth-century book of hours, the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. As she wrote in her “Introduction” to that collection:
The poems that follow begin as a response to this manuscript, and specifically to the calendar section that opens this and all traditional books of hours. The calendar lists the principal saints’ days and other important religious holidays of the medieval year in a given region. In keeping with the cyclical rhythm of a calendar, the poems follow the sequence of days and months and not necessarily that of years.The most ambitious of her works to that point, Such Rich Hour was built in sections of twelve months, from January to December, and in a structure timeless but timed; placed with a beginning and an end, starting the sequence before the “Introduction” has even begun, with both a “Preface” and a “Forward,” writing musings amid poems working themselves through considerations based somewhere between the original text and the author herself, writing, “numbers, which Saint Augustine considered / God thinks / if he am is therefore there” (Preface), or “and what / a strange shape for paradise. I thought it would be more round.” (February 2: The Benediction of the Candles). The poems in the book of a hundred hands, on the other hand (so to speak), work from much the same point of the poems in Such Rich Hour, writing themselves not out of the original text of a book of hours, but the original texts of hands themselves, writing poems that somehow managed to write themselves.
Poems titled the first of a given month bear a relation to the Trés Riches Heures calendar illustration for that month, though they are not dependent upon it. Rather, they – like all the pieces here – soon diverge from their source and simply wander the century. And finally, they are simply collections of words, each of which begins and ends on the page itself.
THE THEATER OF THE HAND
Chart it on a staff, both the shape of the note and that of the hand
of the music therein. Marinetti wrote a play
composed entirely of hands
that waved above a sheet when the lights came on.
In another (whose?) a mime stood alone on stage
and when the lights went down, all that remained were his hands gloved
in something that glows in the dark. Such as will not spread in the dark
such as five years. Arrange them as you like. (Professions of the Hand)
There is a precision to her poems that I have always liked [see my previous note on her here], writing poems that work very nicely between that tension arising amid pure precision and an essential loss of control that allows the poems to move off into their own magnificent directions, resonating in both ear and the eye.
THE HANDS TESTIFY
As if the sun had hit
there are days it all goes right
There's a greenhouse just out of sight.
All I can see is a greenhouse, the glass in the sun, the green
is somewhere else. The hand arches over
the head of the child and floats down. The hand is planned
as a perfect inversion of the head. Child and mine, a building of eyes. You can see
through the hand or think you can
to the flower of the brain, but all along it's the hand
that's blooming, and the child is incidental, or at least not central to the scene. (Representations of the Hand)