I’ve been a Houstonian for nearly a decade, and have spent the entirety living down the street from the Museum District. Living in such close proximity to both fantastic permanent and rotating exhibitions and exhibits leaves me with no excuse not to spend hours in hall after reverberant hall. I declare an exhibit “good” if at the end I feel like Alice after her tumble down the rabbit hole. I’ve fallen further away from the world I know, deeper into a new reality that is not entirely mine, but not entirely alien.
Yuko Otomo’s The Hand of the Poet epitomizes this blur we experience between our selves and our art. Or, in Otomo’s case, the poetry and the hands that write it. Her poems were inspired by the New York Public Library’s exhibition “The Hand of the Poet: Original Manuscripts by 100 Masters.” Otomo places herself within the pages and minds of the world’s most famous poets as she gazes into each written page, each written word. She is most successful when the line between herself and the poet she is speaking of disappears.
The collection begins as a surface examination of the poets’ manuscripts. The first poem, “William Blake,” very much registers an observational tone; she describes precisely what she sees, with only a bit of musing:
I stuck my head
pages of poetic spirit engraved
[. . .]
not to pull anyone down
but to help one breathe
a bit lighter
To use this same technique for all twenty-eight poets would lack much dynamism, so Otomo instead transforms with each poem, getting gradually swept into the manuscripts and their poets. As any art-lover transforms in the midst of an inspiring museum exhibit, Otomo goes from very much a part of the real world to a state in which she has forgotten the world outside. She struggles alongside the artists she writes of, wrestling even.
A poem in which I especially noted a blur between her and the poet is “Stanley Kunitz.” Otomo mirrors Kunitz’s quiet placement of one word after another, not forcing her poem into any direction or with any agenda. She ends,
a poem will breathe its own life
if it has one
It isn’t necessary to know who Kunitz is as a reference, or to measure up Otomo’s words against his, because the poem stands on its own. It is the wisdom she takes from Kunitz and plants within her own gaze, not merely his clothing that she tries on temporarily.
By the end of the chapbook, it seems that Otomo has intimate relationships with the poets whose manuscripts she is gazing at, and into. She even begins to take on the emotional temperament of the poets. In the poem “e.e. cummings,” Otomo writes in a very cummings-ish air, both carefree and melancholy:
thank you for
a heart-shaped elephant
although an elephant is not my favorite animal
I will cherish it
It is not up to Otomo what she sees in each poet’s manuscript. She was simply given their thoughts and movements on the page, captured and frozen in time. But by filtering them through the lens of her perception, Otomo transforms the poets’ visions and voices into her own. She leaves the exhibit still herself, but also a little bit not-herself. The Hand of the Poet is Otomo’s vessel for the poets still alive on the page.
The Hand of the Poet is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse
Nic Walker lives in Houston, TX and has an MFA in poetry from University of Houston. She currently teaches at Lone Star Community College. Her work can be found in Southern Humanities Review.