Jeffrey Side reviews
What Hands Can Hold
by Ami Kaye
What Hands Can Hold is a collection of poems, many of which are narratives, yet not mired in the intense descriptiveness that such a form has usually comprised. They leave room (as all good poetry should) for the reader’s interaction with the text. For instance, the poem ‘Diya’ (“Diya” is a Hindi word meaning “votive”) recounts a Hindu ritual whereby a wick made of cotton and oil is placed in an earthenware dish, lit, then put in (usually) the river Ganges to mark purity during a religious ceremony, but the poem has a resonance which belies its effortless account of this ritual:
In the gold light of dusk
she cupped her hands
holding flame in a leaf-boat
she set it afloat on the
pond next to a water-lily
then she followed suit
first the sandals
then the silk
then the wind
loosened long hair
so carefully tied back
with a ribbon torn
from the sky
In the first stanza, we see how the candle in its container becomes a boat in the woman’s hands and, by inference and extension, how her hands become the river, in that they hold this boat. The woman and the river, therefore, have become the same. This extension is apt for the female subject, as she is, indeed, a river to the extent that her menstrual cycles, as do the sea’s tides, follow a natural pattern induced by nature. This “melding” of the woman with material phenomena, alludes to one of the many philosophical beliefs held within the myriad belief systems comprised within Hinduism, namely monism: the non-dualist belief that the universe comprises of one thing, despite the appearance of diversity.
In the second stanza, we see that the water lily is able to breath magic. The use of the word ‘breathing’ is also apt in relation to Hindu beliefs. Hinduism holds with the concept of “yugas”, which refers to the names of various cyclical eras, the reoccurring regularity of which are likened metaphorically by Hindus to the inward and outward breathing of human breath: the outward breath creates one yuga, the inward breath relinquishes it, the outward breath creates another yuga, the inward breath relinquishes that, and so forth. The water lily is a widespread symbol for enlightenment and resurrection within Hindu and Buddhist cultures, and because of this, it could be said to hold “mysterious” qualities. One natural quality it has is that, when looked at very closely, it appears to “die” at night, being “born” again in the morning, with the advent of sunlight. This natural ability for it to appear to die and be reborn can appear “magical” to most observing this. The poem’s second stanza alludes to this by describing the water lily as ‘breathing magic’.
With the third stanza, we seem to be observing an “outward” alchemical change in the woman’s physical status, which reflects the metaphorical allusion to this in the first stanza, namely, that she is a unity with the river. In stanza three, after placing the lighted candle into the river she undresses (‘first the sandals / then the silk’) and enters the river. We now have a physical unification of the woman and the river, paralleling the metaphorical amalgamation alluded to in the first stanza. This entering of the river physically, also has resonance regarding various religious rituals involving spiritual rebirth, the most obvious one being that of Christian baptism, which, in the evangelical tradition, involves a full-emersion of the believer into water, traditionally a river. In eastern cultures, silk is a symbol for luxury, therefore, the woman, by disrobing of her silk attire, can be said to be renouncing her former connectedness to the material world, similar to the renunciation that monks and nuns experience when relinquishing their personal possessions before joining their particular religious order.
In stanzas four and five, we see how the wind, which is a symbol for enlightenment or spiritual rebirth in many cultures, loosens the woman’s hair that she had ‘so carefully’ tied back. This “loosening” can be likened to the almost involuntary changes in the former modes of behaviour and attitudes that any sort of spiritual awakening seems to have on a person experiencing it. Such changes are said to be gradual but certain, once the path to enlightenment has reached an assured stage. Here, the woman’s hair, once tied with a ‘ribbon torn / from the sky’ (“sky”, here, being contrasted with the river) is no longer captive to that sky (or the worldly realm) but is now conjoined with the river, which in itself is conjoined to phenomena and the universe in a non-dualistic monism.
This connectivity is also reflected in ‘Nexus’, which concerns the emotional attachment of a mother towards her offspring:
I thought they cut
the umbilical cord,
but no matter how
hard I try,
it will not let me
Even when you
are far away
I feel it pulse.
Here we see, as in ‘Diya’, how notions of unity are viewed as almost inexorable, and beyond the wilful control of the participant:
but no matter how
hard I try,
it will not let me
In the poem, phrases such as ‘umbilical cord’, ‘invisible pull’ and ‘far away’ suggest an otherworldly aspect that extends the poem towards a platonic ideal; for these phrases connote an extra-sensual domain that is accessible via the human body. For instance, to those familiar with the concept of the “etheric body” (in some spiritual beliefs said to be an exact immaterial replica of the physical body, and joined to it by a “silver cord”) the poem’s ‘umbilical cord’ will have a resonance, not least because the “silver cord” of the etheric body is envisaged by many as being a non-physical parallel to the physical umbilical cord. The poem expresses the inevitable frustrations, yet overwhelming joys of this connectedness between mother and child, so much so that the experiences of the child can be intimately felt by the mother:
This seems, to some extent, to convey a sense of the interconnectedness of the repercussions of our actions, and it would not be unfitting to see it as similar in essence to the idea known as The Butterfly Effect in Chaos Theory, whereby, according to Wikipedia, the metaphor of a butterfly flapping its wings,
encapsulates the concept of sensitive dependence on initial conditions in chaos theory; namely that small differences in the initial condition of a dynamical system may produce large variations in the long term behaviour of the system. […] for example, a ball placed at the crest of a hill might roll into any of several valleys depending on slight differences in initial position.
In ‘Pen’, this connectedness is rendered more localised and intimate, where the physical, and, in a particular sense, the “non-physical” become symbiotic. There can be no denying the force of this poem to render almost palpable to consciousness certain tenets of British philosopher David Hartley’s theory of “associationism”. This theory posited an explanation for the physiological basis of the human ability to establish mental associations; as such, it is now an established part of medical and psychological theory. As is well known, Wordsworth’s early poetic output was largely influenced by this theory, as were most of Coleridge’s early poetical ideas.
In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth refers on several occasions to mental associations, and it is possible to see how Hartley’s theory is the source of his interest in bodily sensation that is evident in passages such as ‘our bodies feel, where’er they be / Against or with our will’ (in ‘Expostulation and Reply’) and ‘sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; / And passing even into my purer mind’ (in ‘Tintern Abbey’). Similarly, in Coleridge’s verse we can see references to Hartley’s notion of a physiological process causally linking mind and matter, as the following lines dedicated to him in Religious Musings illustrate:
he of mortal kind
Wisest, he first who marked the ideal tribes
Up the fine fibres through the sentient brain.
We see something of an echo of the last line of this Coleridge quote in ‘Pen’:
Inside this bone
burns marrow fire
Here, the physical marrow within the physical bone is rendered as ‘fire’ or energy (or “life force”)—if we extend its scope to include one of the classical elements of ancient Greek thought. Because of this, the marrow is no longer envisaged as being physical; it becomes a force, or power, that travels through the conduit of the physical bone to the thinking centre, the brain; here alluded to by ‘tabula rasa’, which, although contingent on an absence of consciousness, nevertheless, has connotations of the thinking process and the physical brain, which facilitates this. In light of this, we can see how Coleridge’s ‘Up the fine fibres through the sentient brain’ finds echoes in this poem.
Indeed, a further echo of Wordsworth can be seen in ‘Intimations of Mortality’, which despite its title being an antonym to the one Wordsworth gave his poem ‘Intimations of Immortality’, shares some of the latter’s concerns. Both poems deal neo-platonically with the concept of an immortal soul: Wordsworth’s from the position of pre-birth, Kaye’s from that of after death:
Sing, my friend, exult,
soar beyond where angels gather
to scatter feathers from their broken wings.
Tears mingle with rain to nourish earth
in clear voice, pure fountain of the soul,
framed in pulsing silhouette
as songs bleed into the hungry air.
Where do souls flee when death
absorbs their radiance?
When time shrinks on itself
blooming like a treacherous flower,
so innocently cruel?
Whereas Wordsworth deals with the matter philosophically, Kaye does so from a more emotional standpoint, in a register that is knowingly archaic and redolent of William Blake. The poem ends with a fittingly moving stanza, which is readily relatable to by everyone (a yardstick of effective poetry):
Sometimes the fallen enter memories
of those who live on wings,
like when you visit me, and my dreams,
which you inhabit fully.
Perhaps my favourite poem in this collection is ‘Heart of a Dragon’, which is rich in connotation and allusion. In the first two lines of the poem,
During the darkest hours of night,
the heart can no longer hold out.
we see that the use of the word “heart” is redolent of that in Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘Heart, We Will Forget Him’. In that poem, Dickinson personifies and externalises her heart, or more accurately her “passion”, to form a dichotomy between it and herself, in order to project her individuality onto it, as can be seen in the opening stanza of Dickinson’s poem:
Heart, we will forget him,
You and I, tonight!
Similarly, in the opening of Kaye’s poem the heart becomes a separate entity, which, unlike in Dickinson, is referred to in the third person (‘the heart’). Both poems in their opening refer to night. In Kaye, the night becomes the period when ‘the heart can no longer hold out’; in Dickinson the same period is the time ‘we will forget him’ (presumably a reference to a loved one). This “forgetting”, which is apparent in Dickinson, is only alluded to in Kaye: ‘the heart can no longer hold out’.
In the next lines of the poem,
Dark as the hunter’s dragon
in some enchanted weyr hidden
as I stand on the edge of night.
the heart is described as “dark”; a word already alluded to in the two opening lines of the poem, in the context of ‘the darkest hours of night’. This time, the heart’s darkness (redolent of Joseph Conrad’s title for his book, ‘Heart of Darkness’) is compared to that of a hunter’s dragon. Again “night” is mentioned, yet it is not quite night, as there is some ambivalence at play, as suggested by the ‘the edge of’. Could this stand for a feeling of indecisiveness, or perhaps one whereby the poem’s speaker feels pulled in different directions simultaneously, producing some sort of aroused tension? Could it be that the heart/passion well hidden in the ‘enchanted weyr’ is, in some sense, at odds with the speaker position of only being at the edge of night, or less hidden? Of course, who can tell? Yet, this sort of ambivalence is what makes poetry, poetry.
In other parts of the poem, it is possible to hear faint echoes of imagery from other poems. The following lines, for instance, almost chime in concordance to Blake’s dystopian view of London, in his poem of that name, ‘London:
Pungent, acrid flames emerge
to blow my heart upon the hearse
floating in the silent black lake.
The phrase ‘Pungent, acrid flames emerge’, and the words ‘hearse’, ‘black’ and ‘lake’ have something of a shared register with these lines from Blake’s poem:
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls; […]
Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse. […]
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow, […]
These lines by Blake could almost be the responsive notes to the call of Kaye’s, if it were not for historical chronology.
In a review such as this, it is not possible to fully convey the entire delights this collection holds. I have merely skimmed the surface. No one who delves further into this collection will be disappointed, I can assure you.
Jeffrey Side is an English poet, editor, publisher, and critic.