Hands: a poem by Amélie Addison, May 2021
Playing the cello taught me to
speak through my fingers,
trace lines and shapes through pressure and vibration,
blend colours with a brush of horsehair on silver,
revive the echoes of past lives and feelings
fossilised in varnished wood.
Playing scales, my fingers walked the length of a familiar street -
no need to count steps or look for signposts, as sure
on the smooth ebony pavement as the feet
of an old-time copper pacing his regular beat.
My left hand learned to shift
like the man on the flying trapeze,
swinging back and forth with ease
before soaring into space,
mustering the perfect degree of momentum
to negotiate the void
and land with grace –
the closest I could come to flying
with the ground firm under my feet.
After injury silenced my practice for months on end
my hands were lamed and blinded,
missing familiar turns,
misjudging every step.
My great-great-grandfather’s hands made cymbals kiss,
kettle-drums roar, and snare-drums chatter and roll.
He marched for miles with the boom of a bass drum
pounding through his pelvis at every other step.
It was a hard life.
His hands spun sticks in flams and paradiddles,
shoved behind the worn wheels of mud-fast carts,
heaved his drums across a pawn shop counter
then palmed the silver,
his fare to the next gig.
A hundred years later my hands clung
to straps and rails on buses and trains,
the cool curve of a hard case against my hip
or under my cheek;
I cradled the silent companion of my livelihood,
its weight bearing me down and lifting me up
like the anchor and sails of a ship.
My great-great-grandfather ran away from the circus
having strained his back once too often on the road.
No more tramping over hill and vale,
now to mount the risers of concert halls
and plumb the depths of theatre pits.
Waiting patiently for his cues,
still and poised as an archer or a gunner
ready to let fly, he found
a new carnival of animals to observe
– though he'd never again be o’erleapt by a lion,
nor chase escaped leopards down drains.
His hands were freed to love his wife,
dandle his daughters on his knee and train
his sons in rudiments in their turn.
Many hands converse with the world in other ways.
My mum’s fingertips tease apart embroidery silks and guide needles through patchwork,
my dad’s smudge pastels over paper and bend lead into shapes that will hold the light.
Uncle Doug’s hands braced hammer and chisel against Portland stone,
tapping and chipping to free the words and limbs entombed inside,
giving petrified dreams a resurrection to immortality.
Floury fingers fashion dough into loaves,
grimy ones push bulbs into soil and pull weeds out of it,
take engines apart and massage them back together again, pungent with oil.
Caring hands, scrubbed and bloodied, draw newborns forth
from the womb, mend organs, knit together broken skin.
Calloused hands, smooth with sawdust, lathe
and plane wood to form spindles and dovetail joints.
Sweaty fingers roll over the seam of a cricket ball
to make it grip or bounce or swing,
as an opera singer's teeth and tongue fire syllables into the air,
waiting for the rebound to bloom
till caught, and thrown back -
or drop into dead space.
You’ve got the whole world in your hands, we sing.
The hands that pulled apart sea and sky,
forged mountains in the depths of the earth,
drew the blueprints of biology to fill a world with living things,
took a man’s rib while he slept to give him a counterpart
that like you, he might see
and know what it means to be
‘us’ instead of only ‘me.’
Your hands care for and protect us –
our names tattooed on your palms,
our faces shielded from the blinding glory of your gaze.
Your hands hold and help and heal where we are weak and broken,
find and lead and guide where we are blind and lost.
Your hands may be firm against, or heavy upon us –
not to destroy, but to chastise and restore.
Your hands nurture us like children,
cultivate us like vines,
pastor us like sheep,
build us up like stones into
a palace where you are king,
a temple where you are honoured.
Your hands close our eyes, in sleep and in death.
Your hands are dirtied by our mess,
wet with our tears,
pierced by our wounds.
Yet still you hold them out to us.
Leprous as we are, you are not afraid
to touch our sores.
Our hands are made in the image of yours –
you gave us hands that can
flex, grasp, mould, tear,
caress, create, redress, repair.
You teach us through everything we touch –
what hurts, what harms, what stirs, what soothes.
You have set our hands to work
and promised to work through what we do.
My hands were my glory, once -
my weapons in a godly war,
hardened, honed and burnished, trained
to wrest the beauty you designed
from deadly years of fear and pain.
I cringe to look upon them now -
Why would you sabotage what you made?
How can I build your kingdom,
when I can no longer grasp the tools of my trade?
How can I carry the weak and weary,
when my own limbs fail me every day?
Did I miss the point?
When I thought I was fighting and working and worshipping for you,
did you want me to stop, and see
the victory you’ve already won,
the house you’ve already built,
the harvest you’ve already gathered?
When I wanted to wash your feet,
were you waiting patiently to wash mine?
While I was busy being proud
of all that my hands could do for you,
did you wish I would
just let go
and lay my hands in yours?
Now I feel our hands pressed palm to palm,
each finger pad and joint braced to yours -
roughened by all your labour,
scarred by the nails that
pierced you to save me.
Your strength could crush my every bone and nerve,
yet you hold back, to let me push against you, unscathed.
I picture us as acrobats,
your feet straddling the earth,
hands raised to the heavens,
me turned upside down
yet balanced and supported by your power,
hand to hand,
hour after hour.
I can no longer bear my own weight
through wrists that twist
and elbows that buckle and shake
yet you stand firm.
I strain to strengthen my core, and straighten my frame,
the only word I can speak is your name.
Blood pounds in my ears,
Sooner or later, I must collapse
and fall on my face
or launch myself outwards
and plummet into
Your hands pushing me skywards tell me,
whether I fall or leap,
you stand ever ready
to catch me.
You do not sleep.
Do listen to the Music Network's Spotlight podcast episode with Amélie Addison here where she discusses her experiences with injury and chronic pain as a performer.