This Living Hand

Joseph Campana
January 10, 2012
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I’m thinking about hands, but Jasper Johns, not Frank O’Hara, is to blame.

Earnest grasping. That was what John Keats imagined the warm, living hand capable of performing in his eerie and insistent late poem “This Living Hand.” This poem begins with a grasping hand and ends with a hand reaching out. Strangeness comes between.

Not yet dead, Keats imagines haunting those who survive him and being reanimated by that survivor because he would “So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights / That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood / So in my veins red life might stream again.” Leave to a poet not only to want to live forever and to make that wish a threat.

But I was thinking about the hands that Jasper Johns planted or smeared on a series of canvases. Poets and painters share that particularly grasping feature, the hand, with most everyone else. But for only some (surgeons and musicians come to mind) does the hand seem to be so much more than it is. Take Jasper Johns haunting “Periscope,” which I’m lucky enough to get to see in the Menil Collection on a regular basis:

I love that artist renders primary colors as text, but then again I’m a poet. Little spots of red, yellow, and blue (or bluish-gray) do interrupt grays and browns so insistent it seems color has been chased out of the world. But the hand is really hard to take. Although I know Jasper Johns planted his palm and digits there, this is a painting for Hart Crane, who jumped to his death from a ship in 1932.

Is that better or worse than being killed by a dune buggy on Fire Island as Frank O’Hara was in 1966? Senseless is senseless. And I suppose, then, it’s true: being gay can be hazardous for your health. I’ll keep that in mind.

Before his death, O’Hara too was tagged by Jasper Johns, his hand sweeping not across a periscope but stamped, pressed firmed. Johns was engaged in a Skin series, and his body was ever more an instrument. I know the hands in “Skin with O’Hara Poem” press down and into the surface of the work, but I still feel that a hand or face could reach back out, like Keats’s “living hand”:

 

The poem is “[The Clouds Go Soft],” which starts: “The clouds go soft, / change color and so many kinds / puff up, disperse / sink into the sea.” Here’s a link to the poem, which needs to be seen on the page.

The clouds aren’t the only ones with problems. The heavens are out of kilter and the speaker seems to be torn between dispersing into an anonymous nothing and being painfully fixed as exactly what and when he is.

After my last post, my friend, the very fine poet Paul Otremba, described ekphrasis as “a particular encounter with the work of art, or it has become a detailing of what the art work means or a description that arrives at the discovery of meaning.” The poem as a map of an encounter, then.

I know that, if anyone, the face of Jasper Johns stares out from “Skin with O’Hara Poem” but I want to see Frank O’Hara, feel his living hand reaching out to grasp. It’s futile to wish for such intimacies. Keats reminds us that the artist, dead and living on only in the poem or the work of art, might be a visionary as much as he is a vampire.

I suppose this is one more reason why we might resist the urge to reach out and touch.

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