‘Hands’ by Michael Hartnett

Hartnett by the Bridge in Newcastle West

Hands

By Michael Hartnett
Some white academy of grace
Taught her to dance in perfect ways:
Neck, as locked lily, is not wan
On this great, undulating bird.
 
Are they indeed your soul, those hands,
As frantic as lace in a wind,
Forever unable to fly
From the beauty of your body.
 
And if they dance, your five white fawns,
Walking lawns of your spoken word,
What may I do but let linger,
My eyes on each luminous bone?
 
Your hands are music, and phrases
Escape your fingers as they move,
And make the unmappable lands
Quiet orchestra of your limbs.
 
For I have seen your hands in fields
And called them fluted flowers
Such as the lily is, before
It unleashes its starwhite life:
I have seen your fingernail
Cut the sky
And called it the new moon.

This beautiful love poem was written by Michael Hartnett in 1966 around the time he had met his future wife Rosemary Grantley (whom he married on 4th April, 1966).  It appears in his collection Selected Poems published by New Writer’s Press in 1970 although it was meant for publication in his first collection, Anatomy of a Cliché published by Liam Millar’s Dolmen Press in 1968.  Many of the poems in that collection are dedicated to and inspired by his relationship with Rosemary.   In ‘Hands’, it is obvious that he is trying to impress her with his poetic prowess and yet he appears to be trying to downplay his poetic skills and be nonchalant at the same time!  Those who knew him need no reminding, those who didn’t should be aware that he was a rogue!

 Commenting on the poem the poet himself  has written:

“This is one of the few of my poems that I can say in full.  It is a love poem and was written in 1966.  I like it for reasons both sentimental and professional.  The hands are my wife’s hands: the poem is their equivalent in words.   I avoided the use of obvious rhymes such as wan/swan and used less expected words to finalise the stanzas, but the more usual rhymes can be inferred.”

 The poem opens with a powerful metaphor – Hartnett’s forte – where his wife is compared to a swan, the perennial symbol of faithfulness in Irish poetry.  The poem is titled ‘Hands’ but here he focuses on her neck and compares it to the swan’s.  There is also a simile used to make the comparison and beautiful use of alliteration, ‘locked lily’.  He downplays the importance of keeping a precise rhyming scheme and uses ‘undulating bird’ instead of the more obvious ‘undulating swan’ in the last line of this first stanza.

There is a hint of fragility and nervous tension throughout and in the second stanza he uses the delicate simile, ‘as frantic as lace in a wind’ to describe his wife’s hands.  He uses another powerful metaphor in the third stanza where her  fingers are compared to  ‘five white fawns’.  There is a very distinctive Celtic ethereal quality to the poem and this is emphasised here by his use of internal rhyme where ‘fawns’ rhymes with ‘lawns’ in the middle of the next line.  Again the rhyme is corrupted at the end and the poet uses ‘bone’ instead of the obvious ‘finger’ to end the stanza.

The fourth stanza contains an extended metaphor where the hands are compared to music – ‘phrases escape your fingers as they move’.  He uses the word ‘orchestra’ here also to continue the comparison.  The stanza ends with another example of corrupted rhyming scheme where he has ‘lands’ rhyming with ‘limbs’ instead of the more obvious ‘hands’.

This extended metaphor ends beautifully in the final stanza with his alliterative allusion to ‘fluted flowers’.   The final tour de force metaphor is exquisite: he compares her fingernail to a sliver of new moon in the night sky.

Hartnett’s gift of observation, his closeness to nature and his searing honesty and genius are evident in abundance here in this amazing love poem.  The delicate, fragile images and almost balletic, musical rhythm are echoed in many of his poems  and also in such poems as ‘Poem for Lara, 10’.

Statue of Michael Hartnett in The Square

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