Tom Healy’s first collection of poems, What the Right Hand Knows, is fashioned entirely of artful silence and alluring reticence.
“I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem,” Louise Gluck wrote in “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence” from Proofs and Theories. “I am attracted to ellipses, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence.” A Herculean challenge for the poet, whose work relies on opposing silence, communicating the unsaid. Enter Tom Healy’s stunning debut, What the Right Hand Knows).
Healy writes from inside “the sturdy home secrets become,” divulging only the most necessary and seductive details of his expansive memory. These lyrics manage intimacy and ambiguity in the same brief space: they’re succinct, meticulously crafted and spoken with efficient, euphonic language.
Healy’s opening poem establishes the book’s objective: “no longer / to see myself digging, / but furiously / to dig.” His work thereby acquires a tunneling quality; he drives rapidly through muscle and bone to hit marrow. The poems comprise fractures and resolutions borne from “the rage of no one listening.” From “Alarm”:
A nervous little dog
sniffing the wall
until it found a spot
where it dug and grew.
Growth is intrinsic to What the Right Hand Knows–over the course of this slim volume, its speaker matures from first kiss at age five:
He was the first
man I knew
with hair on his face.
I remember his beard
his lips, then mine.
(“The Anesthesiologist’s Kiss”)
to complications and concessions made in adulthood:
[…] the exchange of whim
an account not just
of comfort and ordinary
cravings but how
of rescue and surrender
The latter excerpt (from “You Two?”) contemplates a joint grocery list–Healy is married to New School dean Fred Hochberg–and locates existential dilemmas in an ordinary domestic item. This house-unrest appears frequently in the collection, consistently tempered with wry and irrefutable wisdom. The riveting “Living on Someone Else’s Money” states: “What it means is flowers / always on the table.” To live in the “Here and Now”:
[…] the task is to remember
the troubled blood of others
and not remember
the bliss of deeper water.
This kind of clarity is a lifelong pursuit, one Healy manages to summarize with equal parts humor and heartbreak, while only halfway through his own odyssey.
Likewise, these poems end with the sense that they’re infinitely larger than the page occupied–though what’s contained there is charged with authentic, emotional energy seldom achieved with such brevity. His selective and almost coy specificity confirms that the right hand knows a great deal more than it is willing to disclose.
Not to say there isn’t a fair amount of unresolved angst in Healy’s work, yet heightened self-awareness dominates even his most tortured meditations. “Mirror, Mirror” asks, “What do we do when we hate our bodies?” and concludes:
[…] concentrating on the organization
of pain and joy
we say is another mirror,
a depth, a conjure in which we might meet
someone who says touch me.
Gluck continued: “The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary.” What the Right Hand Knows is fashioned entirely of that artful silence and alluring reticence.