“This Living Hand” by David Kirby

David Kirby


Tom Mannarino defends his MFA thesis brilliantly, but when
I stick my head in his office door to say so, he’s slumped
in his chair and staring at the floor, and when he looks up,
there’s no other way to describe him than horror-struck.
Tom’s thesis is a novel about his escape from a crushing

religion and the freedom he finds in the love of men, and now
that it’s written and we’re all telling him it’s brilliant,
he realizes that he’s at a turning point, that his story isn’t
academic any more, that it will be published and people
will see it, his family included. It’s so hard to connect

with others sometimes. Keats wanted to: Leigh Hunt remembered
that his young friend looked often at his hand when he was
near death, a hand “faded and swollen in the veins, and say
it was the hand of a man of fifty,” and then Keats turned
from one of those long poems he was no good at to write

in the margin a fragment that begins, “This living hand,
now warm and capable,” and ends, “see, here it is,” and
“I hold it towards you.” In Celtic theology it’s said that heaven
and earth are only three feet apart, but there are thin places
where the distance is even smaller: “The door between this world

and the next is cracked open for a moment,” wrote one mystic,
 “and the light is not all on the other side.” When soldiers
at the Battle of Little Bighorn realized the jig was up, they shook
hands with one another. Goodbye, Calhoun! Goodbye, Ross.
And the Arikara scouts kissed their horses and told them they loved

them. Tom, you try to live your life, but home calls you back.
On a beautiful May morning, your parents are away.
You mow the lawn, put the mower back in the garage,
pick up the gas can, pour its contents over you,
strike a match. Tom, it should be a better world. It isn’t.

Why didn’t you just leave? 200 years ago in Philadelphia,
wise men wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident:
that all men are created equal.” Why couldn’t you believe them?
Jefferson had originally written, “We hold these truths to be
sacred and undeniable,” but Franklin struck the three words 

that made the claim religious, changing it to a claim based
on reason instead. Tom, you weren’t thinking, were you?
Maybe religion could have saved you, though not
the kind that says people who are different from us are evil.
Paul McCartney was fourteen when his mother died of cancer.

Later, she came to him in a dream: “It was great to visit with her again,”
he said, and then he wrote “Let It Be” because in the dream,
his mother told him, “It will be all right, just let it be.” Keats’ hand
was faded and swollen, but his skin is clear now, his fever cooled.
Can you see? It’s just here, Tom. He’s holding it out to you. Take it.

from Rattle #54, Winter 2016
2016 Readers’ Choice Co-Winner

[download audio]


David Kirby: “I connect Keats’ early death with that of a student and friend, though as I worked on ‘This Living Hand,’ I began to wonder if I was telling too much and betraying an intimacy. So I asked my wife, the poet Barbara Hamby, who said, ‘You have to write that poem—people are already forgetting Tom, and you will keep him alive.’” (website)

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