J. Estanislao Lopez's "What the Fingers Do"
Thoughts on detail, perfection, and loss.
What the Fingers Do
My daughter learned to point in a cemetery. There were many deaths that year. The priests’ black shirts grew discolored from sweat. Florists did well. Pillowy, white fabric lined the open casket, as if we were burying, with the body, a bit of sky. My daughter’s finger tried to follow some common bird hopping in the grass. A precious thing fingers do. They also claw at the earth in desperation. They quiver like piano strings. I’ve learned they’re good at clasping onto. Less so at letting go. First published in Zocalo Public Square, May 2022
I haven’t yet read (though I plan to soon) J. Estanislao Lopez’s We Borrowed Gentleness, which came out recently, but I remember reading this poem not long ago, and how it stayed with me — the florists who “did well,” the finger pointing toward the graves, the quivering “like piano strings.” There is a tenderness of noticing that is at the heart of this poem, and it sings and mourns. It sings and mourns and sings and mourns.
That same duality of light and loss — of holding and letting go — is at play in the ever-growing amount of Lopez’s work that I’ve read. In one of his poems, “Constants,” he writes:
In an imagined time, I never entangled myself in an understanding of gravity as symbol for her grief, a force I struggle to escape from. No matter how fast I travel, light approaches at a constant speed—the same with which it leaves.
That final line offers in such poetic succinctness a kind of depiction of the mystery and imagery of life that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking. Light approaches at the same speed it leaves. What is light arriving is also light leaving. How to hold that? How to live, knowing such a mystery is the truth? Lopez’s work — in the poem above and in today’s poem — holds such a duality so beautifully. That holding, just like a hand’s work, is a kind of work of poetry.
I just finished reading Amina Cain’s wonderful and short book, A Horse at Night, which is book about writing, yes, but also a book about reading — a book filled with senses and feelings and tangents and considerations. There’s a moment when she discusses Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment — a novel Cain loved until an ending that felt forced. Cain writes:
That element of sense, coming to love another person, felt forced. In the end, though, I still consider this novel one of my favorites, even if I think it is flawed, even if it in a sense abandons itself, abandons what John Gardner calls in The Art of Fiction the fictional dream, that “rich and vivid play in the mind” that comes to the reader through detail. Again and again in novel after novel, plot gets in the way of detail. It destroys the dream.
I was so struck by the final sentences of this passage, the idea of plot getting in the way of detail, the way that detail itself is what allows that fictional dream — that “rich and vivid play” — to come true and hold true and stay true.
I think the same “fictional dream” can exist in poetry, which makes me think of a line from Virginia Woolf’s letters to Vita Sackville-West that I came across in Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence: “my God Vita, if you happen to know do wire whats the essential difference between prose and poetry—It cracks my poor brain to consider.”
And I think detail — what is noticed and what is flourished and made real through noticing — is what can blossom a poem into a dream, one that is real and full of all of the stuff that makes life, well, life.
That richness of detail forms the basis for Lopez’s poem today. I notice it immediately:
The priests’ black shirts grew discolored from sweat. Florists did well. Pillowy, white fabric lined the open casket
There is hardly any action in this stanza, though it is full of action. The action, which is simply the passage of time and all that occurs and is noticed within that passage of time, is offered through detail. Through looking. I love the image of the black shirts growing discolored. Almost oxymoronic, almost impossible to imagine until you imagine it. And I can imagine it! The damp blacker-blackness of underarm sweat staining an already black shirt in the heat. How that contrasts with the white fabric of a casket. The fabric pillowing like a cloud.
I can’t get over the stanza break that follows that description of fabric, and how it leads to this comparison:
as if we were burying, with the body, a bit of sky.
Absolutely stunning writing. The pause and breath of blank space, as if the poem is allowing the fabric of the casket to ripple and soften and wave, and then the imaginative and gorgeous comparison — as if we were burying…a bit of sky.
Thinking back to Amina Cain’s writing above, about the way in which detail is the access point for the dream world of fiction, I think of how these lines — and this entire poem — do something so seemingly simple: they notice with openness, and then they record that noticing. The many deaths. The black shirts discolored. The daughter’s finger trying to find some common bird. There is no destroying of the dream in this poem. The dream is built, word by word, through the care of description. It seems a simple thing, but maybe it is not. The older I get, the less I see the care of noticing. Maybe this is why I read poems. A poem does not have to happen. It does not have to trend itself toward the extraordinary, to escalate or conflict or inflict or do anything other than pay attention — however the poet chooses, to whatever the poet chooses to pay attention to. To record that attention — to transcribe a litany of detail, and then to walk through the open doors that such detail allows for, by, say, placing the sky inside an open casket — is to make real the dream of poetry, which is the beautiful and generous space of play and care and grief and love and so much else.
I feel such a thing happening when I read just this one line:
A precious thing fingers do.
This single sentence, alone on its own line, feels to me like one of those moments when a poem reveals itself to the poet. When, engaged in that practice of care that comes through the act of writing, the poet listens to the detail and the images and the worlds and feelings softened by the imagination, and then realizes something. A precious thing fingers do. Yes, yes. The poem has opened a door. Love has walked in. It’s a beautiful thing when this happens.
It’s also beautiful because it is true. Fingers do do precious things.
When I think of the daughter in this poem pointing at a bird while so much grief occurs, it makes me think of that poem I always think about by Auden, the one about suffering, and how it “takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” There’s a notion of such gentleness, such humanness in the daughter’s finger looking for the bird in the grass. It’s as if she is saying that she knows we are part of something wide, and vast, something so large that it contains the beauty of birds amidst the loss of so much else. It reminds me of those lines from “Constants,” Lopez’s poem mentioned above:
No matter how fast I travel, light approaches at a constant speed—the same with which it leaves.
But what I also can’t stop thinking about when I read this poem are these opening lines:
My daughter learned to point in a cemetery. There were many deaths that year.
One of my first jobs was at a cemetery. For two summers over a decade ago, I walked among the graves of Arlington National Cemetery — that huge and intensely manicured place where so many soldiers are buried. I would do all sorts of unrelated tasks. I took photos for the website. I followed a camouflaged man through the cemetery’s depths to look at a headstone that had gone awry, another that had fallen into a creek. I scanned old burial records into pdfs.
The cemetery, while I worked there, conducted over a dozen funerals a day. I did not think then, as I do now, about how this number could only be so high because of this country’s ongoing and continued involvement in acts of violence throughout the world and throughout history. My experience of these deaths was strangely intimate. I worked in the same building where mourners gathered before each funeral. I’d walk up the stairs from my basement office into a crowd of crying faces. Once, I fixed a paper jam in a ground floor office’s printer and looked up through a glass window to see a woman’s legs buckle and her body fall into the shoulder of a man, who put his arms out to catch her, though his eyes looked somewhere else.
I began, quite quickly, to be able to discern for each funeral whether the person who had died had died young — which meant violently, unexpectedly, and tragically — or had died old. In the case of the former, there would be more people, nearly everyone supporting someone else, a thread of connections made at shoulders and elbows. A party of heavy heads.
Sometimes, I would go to the bathroom and find myself beside someone whose face was too wet to dry off with just a single brush of a sleeve. Sometimes, I would be out in the field, walking among the near-perfect headstones, and see — far off in the distance — the solemn horses solemnly pulling the wagon that carried the flag-draped coffin. Sometimes, holding a bag that contained a Subway sandwich I had bought for lunch from down the road from where I worked, I’d hear the gunshots — deliberate, loud, and piercing — in the distance and know that whoever had once died had now been saluted. I’d see the planes fly overhead and not hear their engines until after they passed. Always and everywhere, no matter what task I was occupied with, they were there: both suffering and its manicured camouflage — part symmetry and part ritual.
I was malleable in those years, still at the entryway of forming a cohesive politics of what I have come to value. I believed at the time in the truth of American ideals, and I sometimes thought then — as I don’t now — of war as something that people engaged in because people had to engage in such things. Most of all, I was made impressionable by ceremony. And it was ceremony I encountered nearly by the minute at the cemetery. The graves were arranged and spaced apart by the measurements of ceremony, the grass cut to lengths determined by ceremony, the flag folded in ceremony and by the rules of ceremony. I didn’t question much of this until later. Maybe that was part of the point — to keep violence, and the accountability that should come in its wake, away.
In Brueghel’s painting “The Fall of Icarus,” the inspiration for the aforementioned poem by Auden, Icarus’s fall is painted into the bottom right of the frame. Two legs contort haphazardly at the water’s surface, where there is a faint, careless splash. That element of slight chaos, of carelessness, was never present at the cemetery. There was grief, yes. But the violence that had caused the grief — that had sent someone to a war, that had killed someone, that had sent someone home traumatized and left many others traumatized, too — was far off.
When I think of this poem today, I value so deeply its refusal to manicure grief and loss into something seemingly perfect. Such refusal did not exist all those years ago when I worked at Arlington. That attempt toward perfection is something, thinking about it now, that I understand, but that I have come to disagree with. I believe that we sometimes manicure our lives to avoid dealing with or confronting the complexity of them, and all of the difficulty — and beauty — that such complexity contains. And so, when I think of today’s poem, I value the discoloration of the shirts, the contrast between the sweat and the heat and the pillowy fabric. I value the daughter looking elsewhere. I value how Lopez acknowledges such an act as precious. And I value these final lines about our fingers, our hands, and what they represent about ourselves:
They also claw at the earth in desperation. They quiver like piano strings. I’ve learned they’re good at clasping onto. Less so at letting go.
Clawing. Quivering. That is part of our humanness. It must be. I think of Rodin’s sculpture, “The Burghers of Calais,” or even his simple study of a clenched hand.
When I look at this sculpture, it is as if I am looking at a face, at an entire body. I can feel the anguish at the heart of it — something frustrated, something maybe even approaching rage. Our hands contain our humanness. Sometimes they give us away. They clasp a chair while we pretend not to be scared. They sweat from the palms while we beg our foreheads to stay dry. They also hold. They pray. They dance along the keys of a piano. They tickle. They dust themselves in flour. They shape bread. They scratch the back of a lover. We hide so much in this life, but I don’t know if it is possible to hide the way a hand can open and close itself out of care or loss or love.
So, yes. I praise fingers. I praise hands. I praise this poem. I praise all that reminds me that we are more than whatever is manicured, whatever is glossed over, whatever is made to seem perfect. That we are sometimes a face trying not to cry while our hands cry for us. That we are sometimes holding on so tight to the person we love with just a couple fingers wrapped around the other. That we are scared and grieving just as we are full of love or even on the precipice of joy. That, while we live in the midst of loss, we live too in the midst of birds. That one of us can point to them, and that we can share in them together.
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