This is a poem I wrote very quickly today, and so it’s not a final draft and I might rewrite it quite a lot. It’s about hands, very fascinating body parts. Ted Hughes wrote a poem entitled ‘Hands’ which I have posted below my poem (I don’t normally do this – I disagree with the way some blogs post famous poets’ work just to boost their hits – it is not your work, so you shouldn’t leech off it. However, I can’t find a decent link to an online posting of it, so the poem is below).
I was thinking about my hands the other day since I have been doing some manual construction labouring work recently, as temporary work before moving onto a new full time job. It really makes its mark on your hands – the cold bites them, they get scraped by bricks and stones, blistered by shovel handles, and filthy with dirt. At the end of the first week your hands hurt – the knuckles, the skin, and the muscles. But they soon get stronger and tougher, and begin to look like a workman’s hands.
This brings me to something I have noticed in historical novels – characters are often identified as belonging to a certain class by the appearance of their hands. I rememeber reading two books (I forget which ones) where upper class characters (traditionally men and women of leisure) were able to disguise themselves as working class people…until someone spotted their hands. They had soft, unblemished, tapered hands, something virtually impossible for a working class person, and so they were found out.
A few months ago I worked with a 62-year-old builder, a big, barrel-chested former weightlifter, who had never worn gloves in all his building career. The weights he had lifted in the gym and on the building site had left him with enormous hands that looked like they were made of elephant skin. I have fair-sized hands, but my thumb was the same size as his little finger. His hand were impressive in the way they evoked all of the hard work of his lifetime.
Hands can tell stories. There is something very powerful about them – sculptors and painters strive to get them right, sketching them over and over until they are perfected. I won’t go on at length, though there is a lot to say on hands, and instead I’ll finish with my poem:
A Working Hand
There’s honesty in a workman’s hand;
the simple truth
of bread earned by blisters
Work etched into it’s skin,
scuffed white and rubbed red
by daily tool’s abrasion.
The calluses chart an occupation
on strong inelegant fingers,
knuckles that are red raw in coldness.
A hand that knows more
of wooden haft-gripping
than office keyboard-tapping
of tangible creation fuelled
by brow-sweat and arm-strength
and strong sugared tea.
…and ‘Hands‘, by Ted Hughes
Your hands were strange – huge.
A farmer’s joke: ‘still got your bloody great hands!’
You used them with as little regard
As old iron tools – as if their creased, glossed,
Were nerveless, like an African’s footsoles.
When the barbed wire, tightening hum-rigid,
Snapped and leaped through your grip
You flailed your fingers like a caned boy, and laughed:
‘Barbarous wire!’ then just ignored them
As the half-inch deep, cross-hand rips dried.
And when your grasp nosed bullocks, prising their
So they dropped to their knees
I understood again
How the world of half-ton hooves, and horns,
And hides heedless as oaken-boarding, comes to be
Hands more of a piece with your tractor
Than with their own nerves,
Having no more compunction than dung-forks,
But suave as warm oil inside the wombs of ewes,
And monkey delicate
At that cigarette
Which glowed patiently through all your labours
Nursing the one in your lung
To such strength, it squeezed your strength to water
And stopped you.
Your hands lie folded, estranged from all they have
and as they have never been, and startling –
So slender, so taper, so white,
Your mother’s hands suddenly in your hands –
In that final strangeness of elegance.