A quote from Toni Morrison—“It is not only about ‘us’; it is also about me and you. Just the two of us.”—is the first epigram in here is the sweet hand, francine j. harris’ newest collection. The use of Morrison’s quote informs us of the personal nature of the expansive, crackling poems to come.
Given our world of loosely linked multitudes, as much as harris’ poems encompass larger political and societal issues, they are equally engaged with the minute measurements that demarcate isolation and connection. Harris employs a variety of structures—language, science, music, among others—and then confidently pushes beyond their containers to expose the power and possibility of poetry, and life.
In “Stand Up,” through a stream of thoughts encased in a double-justified box of type and seemingly without pause, harris (who styles her name in lowercase) strikes at the heart of loneliness in our multi-connected, fast-paced world. Here harris suggests the limitations and obfuscations of language; how a person can be surrounded but not heard, how talk can be a gesture, yet divorced of meaning and true bonds.
“…they say, “Well you know, just call if you need anything.”
and then they have to go. or they say, “you know if you ever need
to talk.” and then they have to go. or they say “that must be
hard,” and then.”
Even the typography within the collection—titles of poems in a wide san-serifed font, and the poems themselves in tighter serifs of varying sizes—offers a hint of the dualities and frictions at play, and the expansiveness and intimacies within. Syntactically, harris moves between full stops and uncapitalized starts, breaking apart traditional linguistic and social structures.
A poet of ideas and emotions, of the personal and politic, harris also writes sublimely about the environment and what it represents about this nation. “Oregon Trail, Missouri” is a poetic anthem about America as it is, and as it might yet be, through the lens of the Oregon Trail, the westward migration so heroic in history books, yet seeped with “the blood of original American and bloody-scrape knuckles / of emigrant pioneer.”
harris reveals one of the roles of the contemporary poet: to expose unpleasant truths of the past and present, to call out the aspects of our worst selves—“…O what haven from man // who believe in America, only all to himself?…” She can also architect a different future that is less about the touted action-orientation of the American character. Here she leads us through a Salomé-worthy accumulation of un-doings:
“…O prairie of blazing star, imagine
full caves of left alone unraided buffalo
clover, unhelped, unfringed orchid, unwestern. Imagine
ground hallow, free to forage”
The use of form to amplify content is evident throughout the collection. In “Single Lines Looking Forward or One Monostich Past,” she employs the monostich—a structure most used in 19th century Russian and French poetry, then later in modern poetry—to great effect. Harris uses the economics of single lines to express complete poems, yet stitched together so thoughtfully; there’s a larger story that’s established with this singular piece, the story of one person’s reconstruction of language, and meaning.
In “barycenter,” harris uses a critical astronomical construct as a metaphor for relationships, offering a stunning connection between poetry and physics with a flurry of in-line rhymes: “i was that one, the implosion who would be in the would-be window, who would reach the i-want-you through the echo explosion, be damned.” When two objects of different masses orbit each other—the “two-body problem”—the barycenter will be located within the larger object, especially if they are physically closer to each other. Again her approach echoes the subject matter—or vice versa—visually, the words orbit on the page between left and right justification, with type that is among the smallest in the book.
The barycenter is a striking parallel for relationships: as we orbit each other, maintaining a proper balance is vital and difficult. The closer we are, the more uneven the energy, the likelier that the smaller body is forced to orbit the larger, which emits a barely perceptible wobble. So, too, in writing, which when this bold, this complex, suggests the reader can be subsumed by such dazzling content. Yet harris is an expert practitioner and guide; we are always in her orbit, captivated as she manipulates language, un-doing worn traditions, engaging the reader intimately, and unforgettably.
here is the sweet hand
By francine j. harris
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Published Aug. 4, 2020
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters, and an Editor and Senior Strategist at Chicago Review of Books, Mandana Chaffa’s writing has appeared in a variety of publications and anthologies. She serves on the boards of the National Book Critics Circle and The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.