November 13, 2006

Poem Analysis

The poem in Writer’s Almanac for Friday I found quite lovely, very very simple yet it said a lot. You can see it for yourself at have reprinted it here, but riskily, as I do not have permission to...So hopefully you will check it out at their website as well.

Poem: "Unforeseen" by Reid Bush, from What You Know. © Larkspur Press.


Before we buried him, no one thought
to trace around his hand.

It would have been an easy thing to do
if you could stand his fingers cold, stiff:
just a piece of paper underneath
and pen or pencil.

I don't think there's anybody
could half imagine in a million years
how much since he died we've argued
over just how big his hands were.

It's hard to know when you need to
what it is you're going to want.

Thoughts on the poem:

A poem is all about compression, about saying things in as brief a space as possible. And so instead of telling us who died and how or even that someone died, the poet starts off in medias res (in the middle of things) by saying: (afterwards we realized that) we hadn't thought to trace the (dead man's) hand before we buried him. If you could stand doing it, it would have been a simple task, just needing pen and paper. It is left to the reader to infer all the other stuff that went beforehand, even who this man is...which remains a mystery throughout, and is a kind of gift to us, as it allows each reader to bring to the poem his or her own memories and his or her own needs for who the man "must" be. We read that into the poem, personalizing it and thereby "own" it a little more.

“We've argued over just how big his hands were”: this brings to mind several things -- " You're in good hands with AllSTATE"; "He's got the whole world in his hands"; someone's having got your life in his hands...Big hands are capable, workman's hands; they can catch things and not let them fall. “Big hands, big heart” too, and therefore all the connotations that go along with big heart.

Also, note the exaggeration of “I don’t think there’s anybody could half imagine in a million years...” that sort of being surprised at the strength of their own reactions, how much the arguing has been over his hand size, over HOW BIG his hands were. Not his hand size but HOW BIG...This big, or bigger? Even bigger? Just how big?!

"It's hard to know when you need to/ what it is you are going to want" (when someone dies). Who would have thought, at the moment when they buried him, that they would have wanted to know the exact dimensions of his hand size...And yet of course, that is NOT the point. Knowing exactly how big his hands were would not have solved anything really, or would have solved more than was wanted. The point was the myth of How big his hands were, how big his heart...Not a question you really want resolved into inches and ounces, millimeters and grams, which are meaningless in such a context. No one truly cares how big his hands really were in those terms (knowing the measurements would only diminish the man and the “myth”), only that they seemed very big, very capacious, very...well, whatever words come to mind, which is ALL that matters in the end. Despite the last line, wanting the hand-tracing, and not having it are probably both good things because it allows memory to do its job in recreating the man...In my opinion. But what you want is not always what you need anyhow. Here, what I think is implied is needed is the family gathered round arguing about how big the man’s hands were, that act of familial remembering, much more than any settling of the argument by dragging out proof.

Posted by pamwagg at November 13, 2006 03:52 PM


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