The hand is second only to language in defining the human being, and its constant presence makes it a ready reminder of our humanity, with all its privileges and obligations. In this dazzling collection, Cole Swensen explores the hand from any angle approachable by language and art. Her hope: to exhaust the hand as subject matter; her joy: the fact that she couldn’t.
These short poems reveal the hand from a hundred different perspectives. Incorporating sign language, drawing manuals, paintings from the 14th to the 20th century, shadow puppets, imagined histories, positions (the “hand as a boatless sail”), and professions (“the hand as window in which the panes infinitesimal”), Cole Swensen’s fine hand is “that which augments” our understanding and appreciation of “this freak wing,” this “wheel that comforts none” yet remains “a fruit the size and shape of the heart.”
“The Book of a Hundred Hands shows one of our most gifted poets at the top of her form. Swensen’s meditations on the classical tradition of ekphrasis and its continuation into our contemporary so-called secular world inspire her concern for the moment of transition between the visual and the verbal. Ear and eye meet in the hand drawn and defined. ‘Something shifting between / I saw and I heard.’ For this poet every mark made on paper is an acoustic signal. As she wonderfully puts it in ‘Grip,’ ‘the intricate isthmus of the wrist made initial.’”—Susan Howe