The Reinvention of the Human Hand coverReviewed by Peter Norman

The Reinvention of the Human Hand

Paul Vermeersch

McClelland & Stewart, 2010

88 pages, $18.99


Created more than 17,000 years ago, the cave paintings at Lascaux depict hundreds of animals. The purpose of the images is unknown: their significance may have been religious or shamanistic, or possibly scientific (one hypothesis proposes they acted as star charts); or perhaps they simply narrated successful hunts. Human efforts—spiritual, scientific, artistic—to understand and describe the world often confront our place in the animal kingdom. Paul Vermeersch’s excellent fourth poetry collection, The Reinvention of the Human Hand, delves into that rich thematic territory, so it’s only suitable that the book’s first poem takes us into those famed caves.

In “The Painted Beasts of Lascaux,” the cave art provides a link to something primal within everyone; its discovery by modern humans is described as “a kind of homecoming, too. / Part of you has been here before, germinal, hidden.” The beasts themselves are part of that internalized ancestry, “Their song the song / that’s been snarled in your heart…” This establishes the book’s major motif: the human relationship to other animals, and to our ancient roots. “Painted Beasts” also displays the musicality of the poetry to come: its rich soundscape embodies its content. Tough, dense language depicts the “muscled, brawling bulls entombed / deep within, their horns goring the darkness / locked in the rock of ages”; the consonance of the heavy B conveys bulk and aggression, while the repeated or in “horns goring” enacts repeated jabs of the head. Later, the poem evokes the beat of ancestral drums with “Their hoof beats trampling this ancestral earth / are still the drums that drive the song in your blood….”

Dozens of creatures populate The Reinvention of the Human Hand: apes and wolves; mosquitos and ticks; Laika, the first dog in space; the worm in a bottle of mescal; extinct animals, such as the Pyrenean ibex; apocryphal ones, such as the Sasquatch; characters from Warner Bros. cartoons. Just as varied as the species depicted are the ways in which the poems confront them. In an act of reverse anthropomorphism, “The Threatened Swan” compares a nervous mother wearing a white coat on a subway platform to a swan in a painting by Jan Asselyn. A scorpion in a jar serves as a memento mori (or something more complex—a memento of primal fear, perhaps) for the woman it bit many years ago. A micro-organism is addressed directly in “Ode to Amoeba proteus.” The final poem, “Lost Things,” is an affecting elegy for a lost love, tying the fate of the relationship to that of extinct creatures: “When last / I held you in my arms, my love, the West / African black rhinoceros was still magnificent / and still alive….” (I like how that conspicuous line break strands us a moment with “West,” evoking sunset and endings and the inevitable rotation of the Earth, which cannot be reversed—the past is an extinct animal.)

The book really excels when it depicts humans infused with animal elements, or vice versa: one powerful poem recalls Baby Fae, who lived for 21 days with a transplanted baboon’s heart; another incorporates words used by apes communicating with humans via sign language. Artificial or artificially enhanced body parts recur as a lesser motif: the title poem examines various attempts to restore movement to the hand of a woman left quadriplegic after a car crash; another poem is about a wooden leg; a notably imaginative and poignant piece is written from the POV of a glass eye.

This thematic material presents two great dangers. The poet expressing wonder at the animal kingdom risks lapsing into sentimentality or fuzzy-headed gushing, forgetting that nature, for all its beauty, consists of a bunch of organisms trying their damnedest to survive, typically by killing and eating one another. The other danger is anthropomorphism, the human tendency to project our own attributes onto animals that do not necessarily share them. Vermeersch avoids both hazards through his intensity of imagination, intelligence of approach and mastery of technique.

The poems in Reinvention demonstrate a keen sympathetic imagination. Whether assuming the voice of the glass eye, or of Laika the orbiting dog, or of another human, such as Joseph Merrick (widely and mistakenly known as John Merrick, a.k.a. the Elephant Man), Vermeersch infuses his verse with compassion. But cheap sentiment is nowhere in sight—these poems do not indulge in hocus pocus; they are grounded in scientific awareness. Some of them function almost as secular hymns, leavening awe with pragmatism.

This delicate balance relies largely on technique—the tone and the music must be very finely calibrated. Fortunately, in that regard we are in excellent hands. Vermeersch makes terrific use of musical effects. His handle on structure and pacing is very strong too—he’s particularly good at the sinister final twist or surprising last-second lift-off. “Ode to Amoeba proteus” is a good example of these strengths. Rhythmically, its cadence surges and retracts to mirror the motion of the amoeba as it surrounds and consumes its food; its rather shocking final two lines introduce an unexpected human element, wrenching us into a new emotional register and thereby deepening the poem.

Another vital element in the book is humour, without which all this deep ’n’ heavy stuff could get pretty portentous. Vermeersch laces the book with wit and playfulness. “Another Effect of Global Warming” depicts the final disintegration of the North Pole ice cap. The “other effect” is that Santa’s workshop, having had the ice vanish beneath it, sinks to the seabed. It’s an amusing premise, though at first glance it seems too slight to carry a 20-line poem. But Vermeersch pulls it off. The crackling first lines, with their string of hard C’s, evoke the breaking of ice and wood: “The last of the ice cap finally splinters like a tray / of ice cubes cracked into a pail, / and the wooden workshop floor buckles….” And check out how Vermeersch maintains the humorous premise with a Santa Claus reference, even as he ramps up the serious poetry with a rich descriptive passage: “Yes, Virginia, / there is a Greenland shark, with parasites / trailing from its blighted eyes, / nosing through the wrecked and lightless halls of Christmas….” The result is a poem amusing in its concept and stirring in its execution.

Not every poem in Reinvention involves the animal kingdom; some are populated exclusively by human fauna. “Cloud Formation Like a Map of the World” is one of the best of these, a moving bit of human drama played out beneath a surprising cloudscape. Aspects of science, including quantum physics and medical procedures, crop up in several of the animal-free poems; they provide further evidence of a keen mind finding room for wonder amid the rigours of secular scientific thought.

But I’d like to finish by looking at a poem that does address the animal theme. It’s called “Ape,” and for my money it’s the collection’s crowning achievement. The poem is divided into three sections and stretches over five pages. Like an epic invoking the muses or a spell striving to summon a spirit, it calls forth a being it names “Ape”—not so much a single animal as a distillation of the word’s various resonances: the creature itself, “born out of darkness of mountain / forests, out of rain that doesn’t fall, but hovers”; apes as depicted in myth and pop culture (“come monster of Skull Island, of Original Sin, of / City of Gold”); the brunt of jokes and cartoons deriding the Theory of Evolution; a target of hunters and inhabitant of human-ravaged areas (“Come, Ape, out of bushmeat trade and warzone”).

Having been summoned, Ape is asked to communicate its experience and allow us inside its mind: “Across this forest floor darkened by limbs / crowded with birds, through the colliding sound waves / of their love songs and alarms, come speak.” In solidarity with so many other poems in Reinvention, this one tries to move past anthropomorphism and actually understand its subject. Given the prevalence of poachers and weapons and related imagery, this impulse comes across partly as a desire to nullify or atone for the carnage we humans have inflicted on our close biological relatives. (Again, here’s an opportunity for the verse to soften into sentimentality, but again Vermeersch’s intelligent approach and musical acuity steer us from danger.)

Finally, in a climax of almost unbearable emotional power, the speaker engages in a call-and-response with Ape. The response portion consists of actual “words” used by Michael, a silverback who employed sign language to give what is believed to be a description of his mother’s slaughter at the hands of poachers. (Michael, who died in 2000, is one of two dedicatees of the poem; the other is Koko, the famous gorilla who still lives in Woodside, California.) The poem concludes with a few more lines, urgent and magnificent, that renew the plea for communication.

“Ape” is a culmination of Reinvention’s already formidable strengths. Its use of direct address is majestic and moving. Its incantatory rhythms (similar to those exhibited in the Lascaux poem; similar also to the first section of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” minus the flaky excesses) are stirringly rendered. Vermeersch’s intense imaginative sympathy is on full display, and the emotional impact is tremendous.

Depictions of animals have provided some of the best poetry in English: the clear-eyed observations of John Clare; the crazed and gorgeous effusion of Christopher Smart praising his cat Jeoffrey; Gerard Manley Hopkins’ awe-soaked tribute to the windhover; Elizabeth Bishop’s incredible “The Armadillo” and “The Fish”; the great, grim animal poems of Ted Hughes; the precise, musically charged verse of Eric Ormsby. Recent work by young Canadian poets has dealt inventively with animals—books by Dani Couture and Jeff Latosik come immediately to mind. Even against that formidable backdrop, “Ape” stands out, as indeed do several of the best poems in The Reinvention of the Human Hand. Like the prehistoric artists of Lascaux, Vermeersch has given us a superb and haunting rendition of the biological world and the human place within it.


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