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Rachel Tzvia Back's "Her Hands"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Rachel Tzvia Back

Rachel Tzvia Back

Introduction and Text of "Her Hands"

The form of Rachel Tzvia Back's poem, "Her Hands," does reveal the influence of the poet's having studied the likes of Susan Howe and other post-moderns and even avant-gardes, especially the so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, with whom Howe is usually associated.

The poem plays out primarily in tercets or three-line groups of words. The two opening movements of the poem consist of no complete sentences, instead feature only phrases. It concludes with a couplet or two line stanza. In all, there are 18 three-line tercets and the final couplet or two-line group. However, the poem does easily split up nicely with upper-case letters signaling groups one, five, and eleven.

Her Hands

Her hands
open on her lap
empty and

motionless
palms facing up
as in

prayer
pale lines leading
nowhere

and a ragged
lifeline
that tells

one great lie
Littlest
spirit she

carried and
could not
protect

from what
from whom
in the darkened

warm room where
baby breaths
hovered

promising
themselves
in the narrow and

precarious
world
suddenly

gone
The debate
as to how

or if
one recovers
raging in whispers

in every corner
beside the empty
stroller above

the empty
crib
within

emptied and
terrified hearts
and she

is as
small
as still

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and silent
as the baby girl
who was

tenderly rocked
to sleep
and then

never
woke up

Commentary

This uniquely structured drama offers a brilliant example of what postmodern poetry can accomplish in the hands of a genuine poet.

First Movement: The Fragmentation of Grieving

Her hands
open on her lap
empty and

motionless
palms facing up
as in

prayer
pale lines leading
nowhere

and a ragged
lifeline
that tells

one great lie

The speaker begins in fragments managing to communicate that a mother is sitting with her hands upturned on her lap. The mother appears to be praying, but unhappily, a "great lie" is being yielded through the mother's "ragged lifeline."

Second Movement: The Shock of Death

Littlest
spirit she

carried and
could not
protect

from what
from whom
in the darkened

warm room where
baby breaths
hovered

promising
themselves
in the narrow and

precarious
world
suddenly

gone

The second movement reveals that the mother had a child but she could not protect the child from death. She could not guard the child against "what" or "whom," referring to the mysterious agents who may have acted in the baby's "darkened" chamber, where the baby lay sleeping.

The child appeared to be sleeping peacefully as its breath was hovering in the "warm room." However, the world being what the world is, a "precarious" place that is averse to keeping promises, the baby's soul slipped from that little body and all of a sudden, was "gone."

Third Movement: Facing Emptiness

The debate
as to how

or if
one recovers
raging in whispers

in every corner
beside the empty
stroller above

the empty
crib
within

emptied and
terrified hearts
and she

is as
small
as still

and silent
as the baby girl
who was

tenderly rocked
to sleep
and then

never
woke up

The third movement opens to a discussion on "how // or if / one recovers / raging in whispers." This debate offers up the mysterious question of whether any father or mother can ever be capable of recovering from the loss of a child. The baby's stroller now remains empty. The baby's crib also remains empty. Thus the hearts of the parents and other relatives will remain empty. They all must face all of this emptiness.

The mother, it is revealed, had rocked her baby to sleep, but the infant failed to wake up. The poem's only complete sentence is one that proclaims the grief of the mother, who "is as / small / as still // and silent / as the baby girl." There are no indications that account for the death of the baby except the phenomenon known as "Sudden Infant Death Syndrome" (SIDS), also called "crib death."

How the infant succumbed is of no real consequence to the theme of this poem: the only issue that matters is that this mother's life has been drastically changed by the emptiness she now must experience. The fragmentation of the mother's life has been displayed by the rhetoric of fragmentation in the poem. Her grief will cause her thoughts to break into pain and sorrow for an untold period of mourning.

Dr Rachel Tzvia Back - Temple Solel Sermon Shabbat Zechor 2-23-18

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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