Rachel Tzvia Back's "Her Hands"

Updated on October 15, 2017
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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


Introduction and Text of Poem, "Her Hands"

The form of Rachel Tzvia Back's "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

palms facing up
as in

pale lines leading

and a ragged
that tells

one great lie
spirit she

carried and
could not

from what
from whom
in the darkened

warm room where
baby breaths

in the narrow and


The debate
as to how

or if
one recovers
raging in whispers

in every corner
beside the empty
stroller above

the empty

emptied and
terrified hearts
and she

is as
as still

and silent
as the baby girl
who was

tenderly rocked
to sleep
and then

woke up


First Movement: "Her hands"

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: "Littlest / spirit she"

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" 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: "The debate / as to how"

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.

Back has remarked:

"I believe in poetry as music."

Brief Profile of Rachel Tzvia Back

Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1960, Rachel Tzvia Back relocated to Israel in 1980. She returns often to the United States to give poetry readings.

Rachel Tzvia Back's grandfather left the Holy Land and came to America in the 1920s. She traces her family back seven generations in the land of Israel.

After studying at Yale University and Temple University, she completed her doctorate at Hebrew University in post-modern American poetry.

Back serves as a lecturer at Oranim College and also works in the MA Writing Program at Bar-Ilan University. The poet lives in a small village in Galilee with her husband and three children.

A Sense of Community

Back feels at home in Israel and is especially comfortable with small village life where she and her husband are raising their children ages 6, 11, and 14.

According to Back, "Everything [in Israel] is structured to promote and sustain family life. Family time in Israel is sacred, while the culture in America doesn't promote it."

Back complains that in America there is much talk of family, but in practice family life gets short shrift. She says that her siblings who are raising their families in America envy that cultural difference.

Back gives some details that exemplify that difference. She says that everyone is expected to be home at 6:30 p.m. and have dinner together with family: "You're supposed to be in your family and in your community, both together."

To facilitate this custom, there are no outside activities scheduled for that hour. She also explains that her children are more independent than their American cousins.

Back's children go everywhere by themselves, and she therefore does not need to bother taking them anywhere:

There's a bus that takes them back and forth from school, and they're completely independent. My six-year-old takes herself to and from the bus and to her after school activities. I don't ever pick them up. These things do not seem to happen here in America.

Rachel Tzvia Back: The Poet

Rachel Tzvia Back began her venture in writing poetry at a fairly early age. Poets she holds in high regard are Emily Dickinson, Joy Harjo, George Oppen, and Charles Olson.

The experimental poet, Susan Howe, who is often grouped with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school of poetry, was the focus of Back's dissertation.

Back later published a monograph based on her dissertation, which is titled Led by Language: the Poetry and Poetics of Susan Howe.

Although Back composes most of her works in Israel, she travels to the USA to give poetry readings.

When the poet phones home, her husband tells her, "Wonderful things happen when you go away." The children then have the opportunity to become even more independent.

According to Back, reading poetry aloud and paying attention to line breaks help the reader understand the poem better.

The poet adds, "I believe in poetry as music." Her published collections include Litany and Azimuth. Her most recent publication is her collection titled The Buffalo Poems.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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