We all have different relationships with our bodies. Some love them, and work hard to shape them into something they or others might deem “desirable”. Others hate what they’ve been given, condemned to a life of mirror-gazing and jealous scurrying through magazine pages.
In “Poet Inherits the Fiddler’s Left Hand”, Geraldine O’Kane addresses a body part – her left hand – which somehow feels like an alien appendage. There’s a hint of irony, or at least quirkiness, throughout, referring to raw deals and “musical days cut short”.
Feelings of pity and jealousy give way to guilt. The speaker of the poem seems to feel he/she has neglected the left hand, trusting it only with simple tasks like carrying cups. Contrast this with the shining example of the right hand, “writing out the best of me”. This change of feeling in the poem mirrors the changing relationship we all have with our bodies over time. This, of course, results from the changes in our bodies themselves. No matter how much we love our art, poets, fiddlers and everyone else one day have to rest their arms for good. It’s what you've done to earn that rest that matters.
Poet Inherits the Fiddler’s Left Hand
When I acquired you, I feel you got a raw deal.
Your musical days cut short
before you had time to perfect your craft.
For twenty years you were stretched on a daily basis,
just getting into the stride of retaining memory flexes.
Here you are, with me, making no more use of you
than to strain saucepans of water
carry full cups without spillage
help loop a lace or pull on a shoe.
You are infantile to this varied working life
I hold little hope, you will one day
pick up a pen to tell your own story.
Plain as the rest of me, I allow you no decoration,
no sign saying ‘look and adore me!’
More I encourage you
to work at your relationships
by staying unclasped, upturned, inviting.
You slide nail of forefinger over skin of thumb
mournfully mimicking a familial trait.
I see it as a nervous kneading and rolling;
a worrisome jealousy of the right hand.
The one I have spent my time with;
forging a strength you will never be capable of –
writing out the best of me.
The right hand has my memories running
rich through its sinew, earning the potential
to seek out its mirror image,
its comforter, its companion,
become entangled in its embrace.
You will always be a lightweight,
a bantam, a fingerling,
too little to love.
I am a poet, creative writing facilitator, arts administrator and mental health advocate. My work has been published in numerous anthologies, journals and zines in Ireland, the UK and the US. I am editor of Panning for Poems and online and in print micro poetry journal.
Currently I am co-host of Purely Poetry, a monthly poetry open mic night run in partnership with the Crescent Arts Centre. I gave a TEDx Belfast Talk on Poetry and Mental Health in and read at the Poems Upstairs Series in association with Poetry Ireland Feb. I am working towards my first full collection of poetry and was a recipient of the Artist Career Enhancement Scheme (ACES) award 2015/16 from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
You have used the device of apostrophe here, addressing a non-human. Do you consciously use poetic techniques much, or do they just happen to turn up sometimes? And does the use of such techniques generally improve or hinder a poem, do you think?
I think I hit it lucky with this poem. It came from a writing exercise facilitated by Paul Bachelor, (who by the way takes workshopping poems to a whole new level!). He asked us to write about our less dominant hand. I had never really thought about it before and immediately the idea for the Fiddler’s Left Hand came to me as people always look at my hands and say, oh you have such long fingers do you play piano?! There is always a sense of disappointment when I say no; and so the poem was born. I tend to write in first person and poems are usually at least semi-biographical, aren’t all poems! I have tried many times to write in the form of objects over the years, this is perhaps only one of a small handful that have worked.
While I wonder if your main intention here was to be playful, I also wonder if this poem is allegorical. Is it important to keep the reader guessing about such things?
I think as a poet, you can rarely write a poem that doesn’t have some essence of your life experience within it, sometimes for a long time this can remain hidden from your own reading of a finished poem. I did want an element of the fantastical so people would know this was not a usual situation. I think the title shows the playfulness but there is an elemental, spiritual tone and feel to the poem that has grown on me since the first draft and through the many drafts that have followed. I enjoy it when a reader can come back to a poem and get something new from it each time, that they find layers in the poem they didn’t always find there. I feel that is very much the part the reader brings to a poem, on any given day or situation the reader will see a poem with new eyes. It is fun to have a little mystery in a poem.
This poem shows a clear awareness of a specific body part. There is a feeling that this part of the body doesn’t fit somehow. What do you feel are the effects of the feeling that parts of ourselves do not fit?
I never fitted anywhere when I was growing up. I was a wee late child, my sisters were married and gone when I was eight years old, so I didn’t have that sibling rivalry and the sociability I feel growing up with siblings brings. One of my sisters and I are very close now but that didn’t happen until I was in my twenties’ where we had the shared idea of the world and our responsibilities. I was bullied as a child and became very introverted as a result. I had very bad acne as a teenager and because I spent my time trying to hide my face, I also had bad posture. I remember when we moved to a new house once, I was out getting to know the neighbourhood kids, when one said to me, ‘you are that girl I see in town who walks with her head down, I thought there was something wrong with you!’ It has taken me a long time to understand that it’s ok to be different, to be set apart. If I could go back to my childhood self I would give her a heads up that being an adult is much less scary than being a child. People are much more tolerant and accepting of difference. Writing poetry is what got me through all of my childhood traumas and it was poetry that gave me confidence. If someone had said to me 20 years ago that I would be out reading poetry in front of people and saying actual words in between, I would have either laughed at the thought, or died at the thought. Poetry and creative writing changes lives, it opens up new connections and friendships. It clears space in your mind for more important things. It allows you to say things through metaphor and apostrophe that you would may never normally say to someone in real life. It provides an escapism of sorts. That’s what poetry did for me and I have seen it have the same effect on other people. I have met so many wonderful people through poetry, people who also feel like they don’t fit elsewhere but together we fit just fine.
There is also a sense of unfulfilled potential in your poem (“making no more use of you / than to strain saucepans of water…I hold out little hope, you will one day pick up a pen / to tell your own story”) – is this a useful feeling for the writer?
As a writer I believe there is always something new to learn, some other project, some yearning to write your magnum opus. This is a good place to be in. I like to look on the positive side of negatives.
Why do you write?
The simple answer would be because the poems and words come, that it’s something I have no control over. I never envision a time when I will never write again, if you wait long enough and have patience, a poem will always gift itself to you, even if you do nothing but wait. I talk as I write, lots, it keeps me sane, it has helped get me through some very tough situations, it allows me to get away from the world even for a small amount of time, I love getting lost in a poem and that intense euphoric feeling of a new idea for a poem just bustling around your mind.
I enjoy knowing that people connect to my poems, that they don’t have to feel any longer that a part of them does not fit. At the simplest that’s what poetry does, it allows people to know they are not alone, that someone, somewhere in the world, feels the way they have been feeling or felt. It can validate someone’s feelings and there is no need for any awkward questions or conversations. The person can just be there with the poem and their thoughts. That’s what I enjoy about reading poetry and if I can give that to someone else, then that is a gift I have been given and I will use it to the best of my ability.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
Write the kind of poetry that works for you, it may not be to everyone’s taste but you have to like it. It’s the joy you bring to poetry that gives it its energy. We can’t all be Seamus Heaney, Paul Durcan or Simon Armitage but we can aspire. Write what you can, when you can, don’t be afraid of the words you want to write, and wait if the words aren’t coming, then give them time, they will find you.