Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Poem366: “A Bag of Hands” by Mather Schneider

A Bag of Hands by Mather Schneider

A Bag of Hands by Mather Schneider, Studio City, California: Rattle, 2018

It’s interesting to thumb through a chapbook that won a prize I myself was vying for. I open a book like that not with jealousy, but with hope. I really want a book that beat mine for a prize to be good. Being an also-ran to a bad book would feel pretty rotten.

The good news is that it’s pretty hard to deny the merit of A Bag of Hands by Mather Schneider, a 2018 Rattle Chapbook Prize selection. It’s terrific! And that’s a relief.

The Rattle Chapbook Prize is a particularly nice award. It’s big money — $5,000 at present — and the winning title gets distributed to Rattle’s 7,000 subscribers, according to its website. Additionally, the author receives 500 copies of the chapbook, and that’s pretty generous, too.

Schneider’s book fascinates from its unusual title to the first glimpse of the cover, which features original art by the author — a hand (Schneider’s?) seen resting on the frame of a car door through the side mirror. It’s a familiar enough scene, but strangely disorienting, with sky reflected against parking lot pavement and scruffy turf and an inset mirror offering a slightly different view.

That’s what the poems offer, too — an unusual perspective. Many of these are from the point of view of a cab driver who loves a woman from Mexico but transports people who look down their noses at immigrants. In “Consequences,” a woman’s boyfriend reports that 54 people have died in the last month crossing the border from Mexico into Arizona.

The other woman looks out the cab window
and says,
Well, I’m glad.

The man looks at her with something
that is almost horror,
almost human.

It’s a surprising link that the speaker of the poem has with this man, joined as they are by their disgust with the woman’s racism. “There are consequences,” she concludes, feeling fine about the death of so many.

“A Bag of Hands” is another poem that addresses the immigration issue. This poem is about 12 severed hands found in a bag in Jalisco, Mexico. “I’ve stolen things. Hasn’t everybody?” the speaker of the poem asks while considering the hands, removed, perhaps, for that infraction.

He considers the hands of his passengers, and of others:

Some of them are beautiful and smooth

as buckeyes. Some of them are so calloused they cut
you when you shake them. Some of them cup

the sunlight.
Imagine the hands

that held the thieves down, the hands that raised
the machete, the hands

that fell.

“Smooth // as buckeyes.” That’s quite beautiful to me, and such a different way of looking at hands. That kind of insight is found throughout this small collection, which deserves to be in the world, doing its careful and beautiful work.

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