Resources on poetry by the poets themselves

The Handless Maiden

An exercise I often set students is to describe someone doing or making something. It has produced marvellous poems, from a father cleaning the family's shoes, lining them up regimentally, brown on one side of the table, black on the other, to a grandmother polishing the silver sugar bowl her dead husband was presented after fifty years as an insurance clerk.

When I set myself the same exercise I wrote about my mother making crab apple jelly, describing how after the long process of extracting the juice from the fruit and boiling it up with sugar, she held up to the light a jar that was ‘the colour of fire’.

I can see now, though I don't think I thought of it at the time, why it was so important to me. The crab apple trees grew wild in the lanes near the field where my parents kept their caravan. Come August the branches were crowded with sour red apples. My mother couldn't bear to let such bounty go to waste.

It is the same motive that spurs me to write poems. I write, above all, to preserve things, as if I were stocking a larder. For me, the writing of every poem that isn't just a pretence of a poem is like making that jelly: a boiling down of the essence until the moment, so risky and difficult to judge, so open to the possibility of failure, when it can be poured into a jar and left to cool and set.

There have been long periods when I haven't written. As a small child, I sewed together sheets of Jeyes toilet paper to make a book and wrote poems, or what I thought were poems, on the thin brown pages. I said I wanted to be a poet. But there my creativity stopped. Required, aged nine, to write a poem for school homework (this was before the days of Ted Hughes's Poetry in the Making, of Poets in Schools, of teachers using poetry to reinforce rather than undermine a child's confidence), I copied out ‘Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen’. At fourteen, I put together a sonnet by cannibalising lines from Shakespeare's sonnets. (This is not something I would advise. Both my attempts at plagiarism resulted in humiliating public denunciation.)

To write a poem was too daunting. Yet I was still secretly obsessed with the idea of being a poet. I stole a beautiful, blue, cloth covered edition of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience from my parents’ bookcase and kept it under my bed, along with a red and gold and completely out-dated medical dictionary. At night, I read alternately ‘Ah  Sunflower, weary of time’ and ‘0 Rose, thou are sick’ and the symptoms of hysteria and tuberculosis.

My mother insists I had poems in the school magazine. All I have been able to find is a faintly erotic prose piece about fish swimming between my legs on a Greek beach and, in a diamond shape, on a page tom from an exercise book, my first love poem: ‘I / am nigh / lovers sigh ... the sweet bare bracken there to lie’, and so on. I was under the influence of Dylan Thomas. Our English teacher had played us a record of the prologue to Under Milk Wood. I immediately got Thomas's poems out of the library. I remember being sent home from a birthday party for inserting lines from some of the more sexually suggestive ones into a game of consequences.

I studied music at university. My first choice had been medicine but the headmistress decided I wasn't temperamentally suited to be a doctor. I should have read English but ‘English degrees are two-a-penny’ pronounced my mother who had one. I fell in love, got pregnant, married, and produced a baby as I went into my finals year. After graduating, I taught music unenthusiastically in a girls’ private school, had three more children, wrote odd lines of poems, felt isolated and unfulfilled.

It wasn't until I moved to London in my mid-thirties, weaned myself off anti-depressants, and wandered into a poetry class with the safeguard that I would ‘just give it a try’ that I began to write seriously.

The tutor, Colin Falck, was a brilliant teacher. Each week we analysed the work of a published poet in the first half of the session, and the work of one of the students in the second, applying the same critical standards to both. Edward Thomas, Tom Paulin, Douglas Dunn (we looked at Terry Street) and William Carlos Williams were, at this time, the poets who impressed me most.

Alan Ross published my first poem in The London Magazine in 1979. I had gone to the hairdressers to have a frizzy perm to cheer myself up. I needn't have bothered. I found his letter when I got back suggesting some improvements to the poem, which I made. If only all editors were as helpful and encouraging.

It was incredibly important for me: the step to published poet. Living in Newcastle in the late sixties and early seventies, I had known Tony Harrison and his wife (we were in the same baby-sitting circle). He ran a poetry class. If I had joined, it might have started me writing much sooner. But he had once mentioned, with withering scorn, an ‘unpublished poetess’. He knew nothing about my ambitions but I smarted for days, as if he did.

Almost the first poem I wrote, 'Slow Reader', was about my five-year-old son: ‘When I take him on my knee / with his Ladybird book ... he gazes into the air / sighing and shaking his head / like an old man who thinks the mountains / are impassable’. The poem, I now realise, was as much to do with my fears about venturing onto the slopes of Parnassus as it was about his reluctance to read. At the end, I liken him to

a white eyed colt,

shying from the bit, who sees

that if he takes it in his mouth

he'll never run quite free again.

Learning to read, the analogy implies, signals the end of a child's abandonment to animal pleasures. It involves loss as well as gain. But becoming a poet also involves the end of a kind of innocence. It is about being critical, separate. Experience is no longer just experience. It becomes material.

My first collection of poems, Close Relatives, appeared in 1981. It was not until 1994, thirteen years later, that Cape published The Handless Maiden. It is difficult to analyse exactly why there was such a big gap. In 1981 I went back to university to take a degree in English and then began a PhD. That certainly arrested my writing for a time; though, in the long term, the exposure to all that literature - even if the poetry consisted almost exclusively of a long line of male poets - had a good effect.

I got round to reading women poets later: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Charlotte Mew, HD, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, and Elaine Feinstein's translations of the Russian poets Ahkmatova and Tsvetayeva. But their influence was only gradual: a sort of drip-feed of nutrients. It was not until I read Adrienne Rich's essay ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision’ that I properly realised how important this shadow line of women poets was to me; and, also, how resistant I had been to women's voices and visions.

Rich addresses this resistance through an analysis of her development as a poet. Her earliest models, like mine, were the male poets she had studied at college. She had been taught, as I had, ‘that poetry should be “universal” which meant, of course, nonfemale’. Even when, in the sequence ‘Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law’, she had felt able to write, for the first time, directly about experiencing herself as a woman, she still ‘hadn't found the courage to use the pronoun “I”- the woman in the poem is always “she”'. ‘She’ was a device I had used frequently in my first book as a way of making my poems appear less autobiographical. The effect was to split me off from emotions that allowed into the poems might have given them more energy and conviction.

Another problem was form. When I attempted to write quatrains or sonnets, what spark of life there was in my work quickly died. I wrote free-verse; but because of an underlying unease at not using established patterns - the niggly voices saying ‘You're not a proper poet’ - I couldn't allow myself the freedom to let my voice create its own forms. Adrienne Rich's solution was to experiment with trying to create an alternative feminine language. But I didn't find this particularly helpful as a model.

Then I discovered the work of the American poet Sharon Olds. The Sign of Saturn, her selected poems, was published in England in 199I  . Emily Dickinson compares herself in one poem to a volcano. It is a good image for Olds, too. She writes about sex, children, and family relationships with a molten lyricism that owes nothing to existing forms. I don't think all the poems work. But they matter. They don't just cover the paper. They have a passion in their delivery, a riskiness, a precision and sensuality in the way they describe experience that spurred me to want to invest my poems with a similar honesty and edge.

For two weeks in the summer of 1990 I stayed at Annaghmakerrig. a house in County Monaghan that is run as a centre for artists. There was a lake to swim in, tracks through woods and heathland, a room with a desk and coal fire and, in the evening, communal meals and, at the end of a three-mile walk that on cloudy nights had to he negotiated by the feel of your feet on the road, a bar. But in the daytime there was no one to talk to. On the first day, I wrote in my notebook:

I remember Charlotte Mew writing once, you can only experience things on your own. But it's so lonely on your own. When I've found hands, I can go back to the world of men.

The finding of hands related to a fairy story that had begun to obsess me. Several years before I'd printed 'THE HANDLESS MAIDEN’ in black ink on the brown paper cover of a notebook, made in China, that I loved because its thin pages reminded me of the Jeyes toilet paper I had written on as a child. But the pages remained empty. The story of a girl whose hands are cut off, who finds a husband to give her silver hands and who, eventually, after going off into the forest alone with her child, grows back her own hands, had moved me profoundly but I didn't know why. It wasn't until I read Marie von Franz's feminist-psychoanalytic interpretation of the story that I realised it was my story, and the story of many women. As she points out, it is only the women protagonists of fairy tales who lose their hands. Giving up your own life to live through powerful and creative men is a peculiarly female trait. In the Grimm version of the story the woman's hands grow back because she is good for seven years. In the Russian version, which I prefer, they grow back when she plunges her handless arms into a river to save her drowning baby. She can't beat to lose her child, her own work.

The reference to Charlotte Mew was to a letter she had written from Boulogne in 1911:

It makes all the difference to me to be in the right place. I should never have done 'Fete’if I hadn't been here last year. One realises the place much more alone I think - it is all there is - you don't feel it through another mind which mixes up things - I wonder if art - as they say, is a rather inhuman thing.

That, too, I had held in my head for a long time, as if waiting for this moment. It made all the difference to me to get away from a full-time teaching job, the end of a seven year long love-affair, and a house with a crack to be on my own at Annamaghkerrig.

After several attempts to find a way of writing about The Handless Maiden I gave up. But the idea of going away on my own to grow back my hands was a powerful incentive to write as well as an antidote to grief. I used the place, specifically the pond in the garden, as the setting for a poem, 'The Lily Pond', which converts the grief - which could so easily have formed the material for an embarrassing confessional poem - into a dramatic soliloquy.

The combination of murder and resurrection in the poem's first two lines

Thinking of new ways to kill you

and bring you back from the dead ...

originated in a diary entry written before I left England:

Maybe it's better not to talk to people about - . It always upsets me. I just has to lay him under a sheet in my mind, as if he were dead. And then believe that if by some miracle he wakes, that would be his doing.

Below this there was an attempt to start a poem:

I lay you under a sheet, as if you were dead.

Then, I must go away and lead my life -

not wait at the entrance to the tomb

so as not to be far away

if by some miracle you wake.

The image of laying a body under a sheet also survived into the finished poem; but the references to ‘the entrance to the tomb’ and ‘miracle’ disappeared. They would have given an unwanted Christian gloss to what I intended more to resemble a pagan ritual.

A couple of weeks later, now at Annaghmakerrig, I wrote in my notebook:

I ought to go out into the garden in the sun. I mustn't while I'm here feel I have to do anything to please or impress oilier people. I am here for myself, to write - because that is what I want to do. And it doesn't matter how I go about it. I'm not writing a novel. I'm writing poems. And they come about in curious ways. I could read all day; or sleep all day; or walk all day. It only takes 10 minutes to write a poem - or the germ, skeleton of one.

Actually in the garden, and sitting by the pond, what I produced seems particularly unpromising:

The Pond

needs clearing/groundsel

The wound.

If I am still and listen hard enough ...

A bee buzzes past

Seeds drift upwards/ dead

The dead...

The wind lifting, ruffling.

the DREAM. I'm going to write one poem here with that

title. I'm going to have an important dream - but it won't

just be about the dream - it will contain the actual world

and my thoughts about it.

These ramblings were almost all discarded. But I had got myself by the pond, using my senses - ‘the wind ruffling, lifting’ - and making connections between my feelings inside and the world outside. I had also got the idea of a poem that would combine actuality and dream.

The next step was backwards. I went off into metaphor, always my weakness:


can't be given up

it wouldn't be hope.

Even if I plunged it

into this pond, held it down

under the matted weed

it would bob up like a cork.

It was not entirely useless because the idea of holding hope down was later transformed, without the bathos of the bobbing cork, into the stronger and more shocking image of holding a head down.

What follows goes back to the sheet, and a new development, which also ended up in the finished poem - climbing in under it:

I lay them beside you

under a white sheet

as if you were dead

and then climb under the same sheet

in case by some miracle you wake.

At this point I went back to the pond to make more direct observations. For the first time, the title appears:

The lily Pond

is all clogged up. There's more weed

than water and only two lilies, the wind

rocking them as a dragonfly skims over

My bum is stiff/numb with sitting

on the stone. In my head I keep

pushing you under, holding you

under the mat of weed -

I need my voice back - where is it?

Gradually, elements of the finished poem - matted weed, the wind rocking the lilies, dragonflies - were beginning to appear. At the time, though, it must have seemed hopeless. I abandoned it and began working on a poem about making an apple tart (never completed).

But somehow 'The Lily Pond’was writing itself in my head. Later that day, I began the poem again. Pages of my notebook are filled with drafts. Here is one that bears some resemblance to the finished poem, though I still haven't got the beginning.

I drown you in the lily pond,

holding your head down

under the flat leaves

and spiky flowers

that float over you like a wreath.

Then I sit until I am numb

watching the wind

rock the flowers,

lift the leaves and you rise to the surface.

I could wake [sic] away free.

But I drag you onto the stones

and lie close to your cold

weed-slimed body

in case by some miracle you wake.

The next draft of the poem which makes a significant change is on a page torn from a notebook. I can't date it. The first two lines are almost as in the finished version. The poem has found its form of three-line stanzas too:

Trying to think of a new way to kill you

and bring you to life again

I drown you in the lily pond,

holding your head down

until every bubble of breath

is squeezed from your lungs

and the flat leaves

and spiky flowers

float over you like a wreath.

I sit on the stones until I'm numb,
watching a wind 

A breeze rocks the lilies,

lifts the edges of the leaves,

blue dragonflies

hover in the air like ghosts

Here the draft ends. I can't find any further drafts. I must have typed them on sheets of paper that got lost or thrown away.

Until I looked back in my notebook, I had sustained the myth in my mind that I sat by the pond one afternoon and wrote the poem almost straight out. In fact, as with nearly all my poems, the process of writing it involved a series of messy, chaotic attempts to reach a bit closer towards a version that finally emerges as more realised and ordered.

Thinking of new ways to kill you

and bring you back from the dead,

I try drowning you in the lily pond

holding your head down

until every bubble of breath

is squeezed from your lungs

and the flat leaves and spiky flowers

float over you like a wreath.

I sit on the stones until I'm numb,

until, among reflections of sky,

water-buttercups, spears of iris,

your face rises to the surface

a face that was always puffy

and pale, so curiously unchanged.

A wind rocks the waxy flowers, curls

the edges of the leaves. Blue dragonflies

appear and vanish like ghosts.

I part the mats of yellow weed

and drag you to the bank, covering

your green algae-stained corpse

with a white sheet. Then, I lift the edge

and climb in underneath -

thumping your chest,

breathing into your mouth.

When 'Lily Pond’ won a prize in a poetry competition in which the poems were entered anonymously, the judges assumed it had been written by a man. This probably reveals more about stereo-typed preconceptions of gender identity (only men write violent poems) than any real divisions between what is male and female in poetry.

I was certainly conscious, after I had written the poem, that I had broken through to a voice that was braver and fiercer than before, though I'd come close to it in an earlier poem 'Woodpigeons', written in revenge after a stressful dinner party.

A few months before I had read Lorca's lecture on duende (printed at the back of the Penguin Selected Poems) and found exciting the idea of art originating in a power ‘that has to be roused in the very cells of blood’. I made a conscious decision to try and draw on this energy in my writing. The words ‘wound’ and ‘death’ that appear disconnectedly in the first draft of 'Lily Pond’ may be references to Lorca's identification of duende with death and suffering: ‘The duende does not appear if it sees no possibility of death ... [It] likes the edge of things, the wound’.

But women have also identified with the need for violence and ferocity in their writing. Virginia Woolf felt that she had to ‘kill’ the Angel in the House before she could write uncensored. Sylvia Plath spoke of the ‘blood jet’ of poetry, Emily Dickinson of a ‘loaded gun’, and Stevie Smith, in the most violent images she could muster, of ‘an explosion in the sky ... a mushroom shape of terror’, of the human creature ‘alone in its carapace’ forcing a passage out ‘in splinters covered with blood’. Poetry, she wrote, ‘never has any kindness at all’.

It has been so difficult for women - the soothers and carers and comforters - to be good poets. Every term at my all girls’ school we were read the beautiful passage from Proverbs: 'The Price of a good woman is above rubies ... She walks behind her husband in the gates ... She clothes her family in scarlet’. It entered my consciousness so deeply I bought scarlet flannel to line my children's duffle coats. It was a long time before I found the necessary anger and distance to express my ambivalence at such seductive but potentially imprisoning images

I managed it finally in a poem called 'Ironing'. Its structure is based on George Herbert's poem 'The Flower'. The conjunction of seventeenth century priest and twentieth century feminist is not as unlikely as it might seem when you think of the angry dialogue with God in his poem 'The Collar’(‘I struck the board, and cry'd, No more’). A Freudian might even see an unconscious link in the word ‘board’.

A spiritual autobiography in miniature, Herbert's poem uses the cycle of a flower through winter into spring as a metaphor for the death and rebirth of the soul. My poem is a mini-autobiography too: only I take my metaphor not from nature but from my life as a woman - my relationship with ironing.

I used to iron everything:

my iron flying over sheets and towels

like a sledge chased by wolves over snow,

the flex twisting and crinking

until the sheath frayed, exposing

wires like nerves. I stood like a horse

with a smoking hoof

inviting anyone who dared
to lie on my silver-padded board, 

to be pressed to the thinness

of dolls cut from paper.
I'd have commandeered a crane 

if I could, got the welders at Jarrow

to heat me an iron the size of a tug

to flatten the house.

Then for years I ironed nothing.

I put the iron in a high cupboard.

I converted to crumpledness.

And now I iron again: shaking

dark spots of water onto wrinkled

silk, nosing into sleeves, round

buttons, breathing the sweet heated smell

hot metal draws from newly-washed

cloth, until my blouse dries

to a shining, creaseless blue,

an airy shape with room to push

my arms, breasts, lungs, heart into.

Just before I began writing the poem, I had jotted down two notes about pieces in The Guardian. One was by the art critic Tim Hilton on a Holbein portrait of a woman with a pet squirrel and starling. ‘She has such a lovely face - serious, studious,’ I wrote. Then:

Tim Hilton says the painting is not symbolic-but I wonder.

Squirrels and starlings are fierce. The squirrel - woman's feelings on a chain. The starling - her squawking voice.

The second was a quotation from Saul Bellow on how Mozart's music was produced without effort:

What it makes us see is that there are things which must be done easily. Easily or not at all - that is the truth about art.

‘If that is true,’ I added, ‘I ought to give up trying to be a poet.’

In retrospect, both these jottings relate in a significant way to the poem. They show that I was already thinking about two opposing aspects of a woman: the lovely calm Madonna face in contrast to the fierceness of her feelings (symbolised by the squirrel) and jarring voice (symbolised by the starling).

I was also worrying about the idea that art should come easily. Keats said it, too, even more categorically: ‘If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all’. Because I've always have such a battle with poems his words have stuck in my mind, internalised as a rebuke that on the one hand makes me want to give up writing and on the other to rage against them. After all, giving birth is natural - and how many babies are born easily? It is another reason why I was drawn to Lorca. Duende celebrates the idea that art involves a struggle.

One way I defeat the critical voices that tell me to give up even before I've started is to keep a notebook. I fill it with shopping lists, student marks, quotations, fragments of a diary, resolutions to lead a more organised life, and, before I commit myself to the terror and potential failure of actually writing a poem, with ‘notes’ for poems. This is the page headed 'IRONING (notes for)';

Weight of my hand & arm & shoulder

push into sleeve, the crumpled fabric,

a blouse, silk, purple, violet, crumpled

smooth heat/dampness, the smell of

washed clothes which I know is synthetic

but I am deceived by its smell to believe its natural

like in a bluebell wood (Look Back in Anger/Dashing Away

with a Smoothing Iron -

I used to sing with my father - he stole my heart away.)

For the years of my children's childhood

I ironed everything (tile good mother) even for six months

starch tea-towels (tv ad for spray on starch).

Then for years I ironed nothing.

'Your clothes always look as if they've just come out of
the laundry basket,’ a woman whose husband fancied me

told me.

The iron itself - like a mechanical mouse with a long tail.

Only the seeds of the finished poem are in this first draft: but among them is the antithesis that provides the poem's argument ‘For years ... I ironed everything’ 'and, the only line to have survived intact, ‘Then for years I ironed nothing’.

Various elements have been disposed of altogether. ‘The good mother’ I rejected because I was more interested in the revolt against domesticity. The synthetic bluebell smell of the detergent was too banal, a distraction from the central idea of the poem. The song I sang with my father, 'Dashing Away With a Smoothing Iron', went too. The emotion was too soft for what I wanted. The anecdote about the woman who said my clothes looked as if they had come out of a laundry basket seemed too exposing and confessional. The idea stays with ‘I converted to crumpledness’.

The anger in the finished poem is fairly muted in the first draft, expressed only in the title of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger a play which, of course, begins with a woman ironing while the men sit and read the Sunday papers. It is certainly not in the simile of the iron as a mouse.

I don't usually go in consciously for ‘Martian-style’ similes. But I wanted to make the iron a real physical presence in the poem; to create a series of dream-like and slightly menacing pictures, rather like Paula Rego's nursery-rhyme illustrations. But I rejected the mouse, for its associations with timidity. I replaced it with a whole string of visual similes - a ‘sledge chased by wolves over snow’, ‘wires like nerves’ and a ‘smoking hoof’ - that are not only closer graphically to an iron but that also reflect more effectively the stress and anger of the narrator's emotions. The further images of paper dolls and an ‘iron the size of a tug’ were added both for their emotional weight and because they came from my life at the time. Like lots of mothers I helped my children cut strings of skirted and trousered figures out of folded paper. Living in Newcastle, I had visited Jarrow to see a ship being launched.

The ‘notes’ for the poem were actually written after ironing a blouse. Though greatly worked on, the sensual details of colour and smell have remained, moved from the opening of the poem to the end in the interests of the argument. This section of the finished poem beginning ‘And now I iron again…’ draws directly on Herbert's

And now in age I bud again

After so many deaths I live and write;

I once more smell the dew and rain

and relish versing.

Ever since I first read them, these lines have affected me powerfully. It is partly because of the subject - the possibility of new life and renewal after what I imagine as a series of depressions. But it is also because they break out of the poem's controlling metaphysical metaphor - the flower - into describing, simply and directly, Herbert's own pleasure in sensual experience: in dew and rain and writing.

I wanted my poem to do something similar: to mark the emotional journey from ironing as a metaphor for the constriction of domestic life to ironing as a celebration of domesticity - of its sensual pleasures and, when there's a choice, its freedoms.

My aim in The Handless Maiden was to bring together poems that came from my own experience, such as 'Lily Pond’ and 'Ironing', with poems drawing on myths, fairy stories and sometimes paintings that reflect or illumine or reinforce it. In the poem 'Judith', for example, based on the bible story, I found it easy, because of my own feelings of grief and anger and longing, to enter the mind of a woman who used her grief and rage to cut off the head of Holofernes.

The title poem was finally written in a month's stay at Hawthornden Castle, a retreat for writers near Edinburgh. The castle is perched on a sandstone cliff and the ‘brimming river’ with banks of ‘red-orange mud’ that appears in the poem was the torrent, swollen with rain (it was April), that ran in the gorge below. ‘I think again of writing The Handless Maiden - it's so important to me; if the poem was good enough it could be the title of the book,’ I decided on the first night. And, significantly, because the idea that I am the handless maiden, writing my story with my new-grown hands, is what finally gave the poem its final image and meaning, I also wrote:

I haven't brought any typing paper. I'll have to get some. But I want to wait a week until next Tuesday. Just keep writing until then. The typewriter is a distraction I want poems to come out of my own hand, my body. That connects to the Handless Maiden - last line of poem? these words - with my own hands / I write them [sic].

There were numerous false-starts. For example:

This is my hand

holding the pen

that scratches the paper.

And another:

I cut off my own hands.

One for my mother.

One for my father.

If they couldn't be mine

no one would own them.


I cut off my hands:

saw them lying on the grass,

bloody, like two fish.


Alone in the world

I tied my shoelaces

with tongue and teeth.

Ten days later I was getting desperate:

Maybe I ought to try writing haiku. NO! NO! NO! You must go on trying to get your own voice back; it will come; it's come before.

Then, after pages and pages of more false-starts, I wrote:

Vicki, stop! You're getting nowhere: it's just a metaphor - not important; or perhaps it is - but the only way of writing the story would be to get into it; to have a real sense of losing your hands and growing them. Read the story again - maybe it's in the library - and just deal with that moment when she dips her arms into the water and her hands start to grow!

From that moment on I knew how to write the poem: by putting myself into the woman at the moment when she rescues her baby, when her hands grow. But I was still a long way from the finished version. On the next page there's a draft that fumbles towards it:

I plunged my handless arms

into the stream, the stream running

deep and cloudy with all the earth

the rain has washed from the banks

I couldn't see my baby; I ... [illegible]

into the water, I ... [illegible]

and then I touched her curled hand

with the smooth skin of my stump

and couldn't grasp it and ... [illegible]

out of my wrist bones, to grow

and muscle and skin and strong

fingers, and felt a tingling and a pain

like the pain of giving birth

and I grasped her fingers, pulled her

out of the water, spluttering, the water

running out of her mouth, and when

I'd laid on the grass,

and dried her

and she was breathing, and gurgling

I looked at the miracle

of my hands and thought I'd cut them off

because if I didn't own them nobody would,

and of the silver hands my husband gave me,

how they were useless, except to do

what he wanted, and that all the time

my hands would have grown

if I'd reach out for what I wanted

what I couldn't bear to lose.

The essential elements of the poem are in this draft. But it still took pages and pages of editing before it arrived at its final shape. I went through alternate periods of despair (‘I'm struggling and getting nowhere with 'The Handless Maiden'. It would be better to give up’) and of renewed attempts to find a way to make the poem work (‘I have to stay inside the story but empower it with my feelings’).

Here is a late draft that it is interesting to compare with the finished poem:

When all the water had run from her mouth

and I'd rubbed her arms and legs

and chest and belly and back

with grass, and felt her heat

passing into my breast

and shoulder, and the breath

I couldn't believe in

like a tickling feather

on my neck, I cried.

I cried for the hands

that the devil made my father cut off

I cried for the beautiful silver hands

my husband, the king, gave me

that spun and wove and embroidered

but had no feeling.

I cried for the itching,

lumpy scar-tissue of my stumps.

And I cried for the hands

that write this - strong,

long-boned hands, flowering

in the river's cloudy

red-orange flood,

grasping my baby's curled fists.

The opening lines are there. The poem has found its final narrative shape. But some significant differences exist between this and the finished poem. There were some excisions. I took out ‘the devil’. It belonged to the world of the fairy story and seemed only to confuse my simplified and condensed and, hopefully, more realistic version. For the same reason I took out ‘the king’. I also removed, with some reluctance - I love the sound of the word and the image it conjures - ‘and embroidered’ from the description of the silver hands.

The main changes are additions. I wanted to delay the litany of ‘I cried’ for as long as possible, so I extended the poem's opening narrative by imagining what I would have done if I had just rescued my baby from drowning. I changed ‘grass’ to ‘clumps of dried moss’, a detail that like the ‘red-orange flood’ (changed to ‘mud’ in the final version) came out of walking along the river bank at Hawthornden. And I added other practical details - putting the baby ‘to sleep in a nest of grass’ and spreading ‘her dripping clothes on a bush’ - to make the narrative more down-to-earth and believable.

The principal addition to the second part of the poem is to include the moment when the baby falls into the river. I wanted it there to make the rescue seem even more miraculous. In the final version, before ‘And I cried for my hands’ (‘the’ is changed to ‘my’ to make it more emphatic, more personal), I inserted an account of the baby


from the tight swaddling cloth

as I drank from the brimming river.

There is no swaddling cloth in the original story. I borrowed it from Nativity plays to re-enact with its ‘unwinding’ the sensation of slow-motion, of inevitability, as something terrible happens.

Finally, the ending was tightened; the language made tougher. ‘Flowered’ was changed to ‘sprouted’. ‘The river's cloudy / red-orange flood’ became, more economically, ‘the red-orange mud’. The adjectives ‘strong, long-boned’ disappeared: they interfered with the main point of the hands - that they are ‘the hands that write this’. I wanted the poem to move seamlessly from beginning to end: the essence of the story, of what it meant to me, captured in a single impassioned speech.

When all the water had run from her mouth,

and I'd rubbed her arms and legs,

and chest and belly and back,

with clumps of dried moss;

and I'd put her to sleep in a nest of grass,

and spread her dripping clothes on a bush,

and held her again - her heat passing

into my breast and shoulder,

the breath I couldn't believe in

like a tickling feather on my neck,

I let myself cry. I cried for my hands

my father cut off; for the lumpy, itching scars

of my stumps; for the silver hands

my husband gave me - that spun and wove

but had no feeling; and for my handless arms

that let my baby drop - unwinding

from the tight swaddling cloth

as I drank from the brimming river.

And I cried for my hands that sprouted

in the red-orange mud - the hands

that write this, grasping

her curled fists.

‘The hands that write this’ are, as I have implied, my hands. But the story is, for me, both true and not true. For long periods I am again handless. I have to go on repeating it. The writing of each poem involves a journey into a ‘forest’ of drafts and because, in a sense, the poem already exists, the plunging of handless arms into a river to recover what ‘I couldn't bear to lose’.

Copyright © Vicki Feaver

Re-produced by Permission of the Author