Sunday, March 9, 2014

Robert Priest, Hand Poems

Art by Ross Macdonald

My father's hands

My father had so many hands
He had almost three
My father had so many hands
He had almost three
My father had almost three
But not enough
To touch me once gently

O my father had so many eyes
He had almost three
My father had so many eyes
He had almost three
My father had almost three eyes
But not enough to see me
Once perfectly

My father had but one mouth
And one heart
To lift those bales and bales
At the factory
My poor father of fists and fists
Beating at the wall
Beating at his brow
Beating at his children

My poor factory father
Lined and fat-bellied now
Tranquillized and happier
Made smaller by so many sons
The winds gave him only one
And they said
“here -- spin it
 Make it the hole in rock
We whistle shrill through
Grit your teeth and count your children

He wonders what to do with
Hands now
Where to put them --
These tender lined things
That ache for sons
O my father we are here –
The prints of wanting
Emblazoned on us like
Radioactive brands

My father had so many hands
And he waves them now --
Ashamed a little
Looking puzzled as we leave
At the movement from his wrist
As if he wondered – what are they
When they are not fists

My Mother's Hands

They call me over the wilderness
over the waves, fingers in dials
fingers in rings, through keyboards of ivory
wringing themselves
bone dry
they call
that sewed with thimbles
those raw things, those dangerous hands
poet's, painter's hands, trapped in a woman
hands of mind, dripping with talent always talking
of slitting themselves open at the wrist
and just running away from it all
saying "sometimes I just feel like dying --"

In certain shapes memories are kept
flashing for a moment over the ages
as though from a genetic shore --
warnings, beauties, secrets
mother, mother --
this poem should be about your blood
your blood in the bath
threatening to be there
diluting the water behind the locked door
where you washed yourself making no sounds
as we lay awake in the room beside you
in our beds, calling out at regular intervals
just to make sure that life hadn't just slid out of you in there
in a slow freezing rush

this poem should be about the white of statues
the way you would say "this time I'm not coming back"
and walk away after arguments or blows
 wrath, down the street
a long way to where it bends
and then turn
me praying, giving up preposterous rights
anything to god to jesus
to whatever it was that had the power to reassure me

Eventually she always came back
her hands freezing in the coat
having walked it off I suppose
cooled out
with a kiss
to show us
that brutality
can have the softest face
the most gentle hands
of all

I Knew I Could Sing (Industrial Accident No. 1)

I knew I could sing
when my hand got sucked into the rollers at the factory
cause I hit a high note then that they said
was heard over the sound of the machines
all the way up to the front office

Even as the rollers whirred and burned
and gnawed at my flesh
my mind in its detached way
was listening to that note
marvelling at its purity

I was deep in shock
by the time the men ran over
and finally turned the machine off
The great cylinder ground to a stop
and just weighed down there --
a painful rim
like a whole world
squashing my hand

When they finally unscrewed the housing
(there was no safety release at all)
it took three men to lift up
the great fallen log of the roller
and then as the blood rushed back in
to the white branch of my hand
I knew I could sing
I knew I could sing

Why I Crushed My Hand

I crushed it for my girlfriend
I crushed it for my dad
I crushed it for my mom and my squashed history
in the head
I crushed it for factory safety --
a young martyr at sixteen
I crushed my hand because I wanted to see what it was like
for the school system and workmen's compensation
just to have a story
because there was a piece of paper caught in the roller
and I wanted to get it out
so I grabbed at it and got sucked in
feeling a great tug on the flesh
all the way up my arm
I crushed my hand for world peace because I wanted to stop
the fighting in viet nam
no -- I wanted to get out of my homework
I wanted people to stop hitting me
and I wanted a kiss from those
Indian lips of hers
those dark kisses
of Shamim*

I crushed my hand because I hated working in the factory
I wanted to be out in the sun and I wasn't having this
60 dollars a week
40 dollars a week is what I got on compensation
and this skin graft on my hand
where the flesh was burned off in an oval egg shape

I crushed my hand because I wanted to get the paper out of the rollers
because I had heard the story over the supper table
a million times before
because I wanted to know the careless violence of machines --
metal without pity, just power surging --
to sing, to do a great circus act, a man with a hand like a white leaf
WHOOP, a man with a hand like steak
a purple football, a man with a hand like a great yellowing yam
big as hell in the bed, in the cast
I crushed my hand to give starving doctors work
to keep the hospital going
because I wanted to see what plastic surgery was like
I was young and I wanted to meet a physiotherapist
I had never had manual whirlpool baths before
and my guts, my guts were ready because it was the damn hand
that picked up the phone, that got the news, that got the refusal
the rejection, blackened by plastic over the wires --
a baleful voice saying no saying no

because it had dared wave goodbye
because it had been in the service of the empire and was tainted
and needed to be punished
now I wouldn't have to do my share of the housework
I could just walk around with that large bandage
the hand held high, in traction
as though in greeting and look like a holy man or a fool
I crushed my hand to find the hidden map in the flesh
that would lead me to poetry, to you and to the page
I crushed it to get out of there and get my ticket stamped
and get on with it

*my first girlfriend (a native of South Africa) who had recently
rejected me.

Industrial Accident No. 2

One minute the fingers were quite straight
and beautiful
I was pushing a plank lengthwise
into a table saw and I said to myself --
"Be careful now -- your hand is getting close to the blade
and you've already had one accident."
Then the buzz saw bit into me
with a singing twang
splattering blood over three walls
in a wide halo of drops

My hand seemed to be ringing
like a bell as
I held it up in horror --
all the fingers exploded outward
like red flowers at the tips
My other hand grasped
tourniquet-tight about the wrist
"Take me to the hospital" I screamed
jumping up and down

Now one finger is permanently bent and stiff
On cold days I don't dare type with it
and it is useless for picking up dimes
Nor is it good for pointing out directions or fault
knowing as I do
that finger is always somewhat
pointing back at me


So far away as my pocket, as close as your breast, my hand cannot get to the banquet on time. It is coming in from a far-off place, on a rocket, on a train. My hand the worker -- a gigantic fist kept in a stall, pounding in fury. My hand in a suit pretending to be a man on some luxury liner crossing its legs. My hand is a great poet always writing. I remember it coming back from the factory crushed in a machine when I was sixteen -- a fat mottled rainbow, huge as the hand of a god -- a great fist in bed. I remember it slipping like silver into those rollers coming out crushed flat -- a white web of bones till the blood held back rushed in to fill it, to rejoice in its return, shocked, running over the broken vein mouths, bleeding ever and ever inward -- a huge gush down from the wrist that would blacken and rot. My hand screaming. My hand in bandages -- those fat purple fingertips, that burnt palm, that swollen wrist -- all of me threatening to bulge out into this multi-coloured bruise. My hand Joseph. My hand Jacob and Christ and Neruda. My hand the rebel, the fist, tied down by a million machines but still rising in the air, still smashing down on the earth, snapping the threads, grasping and clawing its way to freedom. My hand is hunted now. It wanders over the world in search of its own kind. It goes from door to door trying to be joined up to something, knowing it is just a small piece of the puzzle.


The violent man's hand fell into the dust and withered to the size of a seed. Later from that spot grew the wheat that would be ground down into the earth by armies, the grains that would be burned and turned back to earth in peace.

The violent man's hand fell into the heap and from it a bird burst -- a bright bursting bird, a third bird, a herd of birds so that the hand leapt and spattered as each bird burst from it. Finally it was a spent black splinter from which blue sparks leapt.

The violent man's hand sank into the earth at 2 miles per hour, heavy as lead. To come back as a bomber angel, dark Lucifer jets with arms full of crosses and gelignite, bleak bomber angels, that only to look into the eyes of a new born child can bring down, one by one -- dark flies, dark fear-flung fists overhead, the severed hands of those who would strike us, dark wings of surrender, bleak hands of poverty thrown high.

The hand that was nailed up, crossed down, crushed at the foot. The hand that went mad and took on rage like seven gravities. That is why there are holes in Arkansas, call them comets, call them what you will. There is rage in those hands when they come down and the children run inexplicably past certain houses, terrified of a sound no one else can hear.


Once there was a floating walking hand which went round and round the world darting and crawling, hoping to evade detection, sometimes scaring drunks and small children. A wild leaping scampering hand not wishing to be part of a circus but utterly mad, knowing only old routines and concentric habits like circles at the bone -- to dance, to tap, and insanely to shake hands. That’s why this hand took to creeping into embassies and literary parties, so that it could crawl up table legs, wait for the right moment and then dive into a handshake, usurping the place of the intended other hand with a shrill kind of scream. This is the hand that madly signed papers over and over again, pouring wine glasses back into nothingness, tilting back beers, making its stump shriek like a whistle.

For a while the hand hung out with spiders thinking it might be one of them.  It dreamed of running over buttons like a minefield, setting off sequences of roses in some drunkard's head, detonating poems like Q-blasts. "Arrrrg! Take me to the abodes of people! Get me into a glove! I will buck and jolt. I will seize up and spit blood if I do not get involved in a caress."

One thing the hand liked to do was grope and poke at parties -- touch people in places no living human being could get at -- give a poke in the dark and then roll across the floor like a combat-trained creature, chuckling with sheer unbearable squeals as the puzzled party-goer nervously eyed whoever was behind him.

Sometimes the hand liked nothing better than to ride the still surface of a stream like a water spider -- to just hang there above its own reflection, each finger, as it touched the mirror, leaving a poem to the sky, an ode to the sun, a divine literature.

Also it is true that the hand would sometimes go into a factory, start up the conveyor belts and madly assemble amazing gadgets, strange amalgams and marvelous gimmicks, all the while whistling with its strange humour until it fell down exhausted.

Of all things, the hand most enjoyed slapping the faces of dictators when they made big speeches on television. This made the hand well-known to all despots, but due to the fact that these programs are pre-taped, the mad escaping hand never had the pleasure of having its handiwork seen by the masses. So if you ever see a political speech and, after a commercial, the great leader comes back on looking a little stunned, a widening red imprint spreading out on his cheeks, look at that shape, that map, that message in the right light and you will see it for what it really is -- the mark of a mad hand.

Single Father

The father counts his money
then he counts his children
How many sons does he have?
He has one son
One Son!
The father counts the hairs on his beard
and does division
How many children does he have?
One child!
The father counts the windows
How many chairs in the house?
With mounting avarice he counts the chairs
How many? How many? How many?
How many fingers
He has ten fingers
How many children?
He has one child --
A son! A son!
but the son is gone
The father counts his shirts
How much sand does he own?
How many sons?
How many sons does he have?
Saturday the child comes to him
How many children does he have?
He has one
The man has one son
And how many fingers?
The son has ten fingers
"Good! Good!" says the father
grabbing his son's hand
as he comes in the door --

"So many fingers!"
"So many fingers!"

My Son’s Hand

It is a brand new Van with those kind of sliding doors that close with a longitudinal push and my first attempt has not quite clicked it shut so I draw it back again for a firmer push. We are waving goodbye. “Goodbye Peter. Goodbye Peter.” but that is not enough for my young son.  He is too low to the ground and can’t be seen. He must peak back through the doorway – his waving hand leading the way to that rapidly narrowing space. ‘No!’ The green door propelled by my thrust. The tender young hand, slowly, slowly in microseconds moving to its moment, the snap and catch, the click and howl. His little hand pinned, bunched up like cloth – “NO” in the closed door. Staring, disbelieving a moment at this grotesque echo from my own life. Then, quick, the door is open, the shocked look spreading out – holding him to me “NO!” Folding him into me. “NO! NO!” These moments – true pain – “Can you move your fingers. Can you move your fingers?” – before the little digits twitch – before the little wrist bends. The hand unbroken! The elastic hand fine but for a welt – a curved mark on the same hand – the right hand – same shape, same place as my scar, almost one on one. But him recovered now – the hand forgotten in moments of play-acting, the incident over but for that slowly disappearing welt, written in his flesh like a letter in some strange alphabet that finally explains everything.


My hands splinter on
More branch lightning
From the long list
Of lightning hands
That struck in anger
Exponential fingers
Gripped in one fist
Full and hard
I smacked him in the head
My own son!

My hand my hand
That went through a machine
Crushed flat
My hand I got
From killers of kings
My hand that branched down out
Of time at me with a mighty clout
Of blood
I struck my eldest
In the head
Full-fisted hard
His head sideways
On the ground
I confess
I confess

That’s the worst thing
I’ve ever done

Rotator Cuff

My shoulder is a chip on itself
It is one side of a wave reared up against my head, my hairdo
Both are extensions of my shoulder
I am still hunched to the rifle
Hump to the shovel
I have shoulders to keep the hat above my ears
And on my left shoulder the cannon
And on my right the dove
My shoulder is a mountain in the making
Ragged pulleys pickaxes chip away at it
My shoulder is a glacier retreating
An ice flow tipping into the north wind
One side of a star tacked up to a hockey stick
My shoulder swivels like a target
It hangs like a ragged sock
Some frightened animal is trying to get out of my shoulder
And every movement beats its fiber with a bat
My shoulder is a failed epaulet hung in tatters
From the gallows pole
It rips at itself like a bird with one wing
Every string taut and tugged
A snow bank on a one-way highway
It is a butchered moose
Road kill on a rack
Something on the end of it
Flapping in the sky
A hand
Trying to write

Industrial Accident 3: My hand  (an update)

Time revved its wheels at the back base of my thumb
At the bottom back of my index finger
In that V there
My skin was stripped out
Burned bare

I saw the grid coming through my hand
I saw the latticework underneath the crisscrosses
I still feel the scaffold in it always

My hand where a burning god walked
Where gears of skin meshed
Standing up now without a staff
Having woven new flesh from old
Having knit new nerves from old
It extracts from broken glass
New clear panes

Once crushed in the tons of machine
It now pulls from thread
The delicate thread

Within the thread

Robert Priest, is the author of fourteen books of poetry, 3 plays, 2 novels, lots of  musical CDS, one hit song and many columns for Now Magazine .   His words have been debated in the legislature, posted in the Transit system, quoted in the Farmer's Almanac, and sung on Sesame street.  His 2008 book: Reading the Bible Backwards peaked at number two on the Globe and Mail’s poetry list. Rosa Rose, a book of children's verse, in praise of inspirational figures, has just been published by Wolsak & Wynn and recently won a silver moonbeam award in the U.S.. A new book of poem for adults, Previously Feared Darkness, was published in Sept. 2013 by ECW press.

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