Paul Vermeersch’s “Hands”

I’m currently reading the latest book of poetry by Paul Vermeersch, entitled The Reinvention of the Human Hand (McClelland & Stewart, 2010). I’ve been looking forward to reading this one ever since I first heard it would be released in this Spring’s M&S lineup. This is the first book of Vermeersch’s I’ve taken up though I have read poems of his in various places, but it promises to be well worth the time. I’m part way through the book, but wanted to post a spotlight entry on one poem in particular which grabbed my attention early in the collection:

“Hands”

I dreamt of finger bones
as thick as treesnakes,
of hands that possessed
a fierce, primeval strength,
and I awoke with swollen
knuckles, as though I had
smashed them hard against stone.

But my bed was soft and my back
ached from the excess of comfort.
Each night, the dreams grew worse.
I saw, severed from their body,
the heavy, black hands
of a mountain silverback.
It felt like wires tightening
around my wrists as I slept.

The preoccupation with the disconnect between man and our distant, ancestral history is one of the prominent themes of this book. In this poem, the image of the human hand possessing “a fierce, primeval strength” is significant in that it harkens back to the days when humans had not yet fully developed as a species and still remained intimately connected with other primates and, it may be argued, the natural world as a whole. There is a frustration in the image of the smashing of hands against stones, which underscores this tension between man and nature, this uncomfortable reminder that we are not as far removed from apes as we might wish to believe. It has been recently pointed out that other animals, both apes and birds, have an amazing capacity for manipulation of the environment through use of objects. This creates an unique discomfort that shows

The second half of the poem takes this internal conflict a step farther. The comfort of tool use and human ingenuity has, in fact, led to a stagnant insecurity heard in the speaker’s voice. Something is calling the speaker back through the void of history, the recurring insistence that the ape is within him. This, however, is a suggestion the speaker fights: “Each night, the dreams grew worse.” In the final lines the silverback’s hands appear in an overlay with those of the human. The wires around the speaker’s wrists show Vermeersch’s adeptness at drawing the poem’s previous points together in a single image. There are flashes of frustration here, of anger and loss of identity; or rather the refining and reestablishment of a previous one, however reluctant the individual may be.

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