Thomas A. Yingling: on "Episode of Hands"
"Episode of Hands," another early poem of Crane’s, is atypical of this early work, for it depicts in a naturalistic fashion—more like Sandburg or Masters than Wilde or Rimbaud—a simple narrative of male bonding and its effect on the poet. "Episode of Hands" depicts the brief moment when a "factory owner’s son" bandages the hand of a worker bleeding from an accident in the factory (Crane was, of course, a factory owner’s son), and the poem begins with the embarrassment the two feel in being thrown into this atypical masculine relation: "The unexpected interest made him flush." It ends, however, is a warm and gentle union between the two men: "And as the bandage knot was tightened / The two men smiled into each other’s eyes." Crane uses the smile as a sign of union and interpersonal knowledge throughout his career, and it is important to see that he implies a healing of both men in this smile, for the owner’s son is allowed a reprieve from his alienating position as the owner’s son. The "knot" brings the two together in a new relation: the "factory sounds and factory thoughts / Were banished from him [the son] by that larger, quieter hand / That lay in his." Crane offers this assessment of the worker’s hand, making the trace of its labor an inspiration rather than an alienation:
The knots and notches,—many in the wide Deep hand that lay in his,—seemed beautiful. They were like the marks of wild ponies’ play,— Bunches of new green breaking the hard turf.
The central stanza depicting the actual moment of bandaging is the most interesting, however; here the owner’s son is made aware of the beauty of his own hands through his connection with the worker’s:
And as the fingers of the factory owner’s son, That knew a grip from books and tennis As well as one for iron and leather,— As his taut, spare fingers wound the gauze Around the thick bed of the wound, His own hand seemed to him Like wings of butterflies Flickering in sunlight over summer fields.
The smile of the wings almost certainly borrows from the character Wings Biddlebaum in Sherwood Anderson’s short story "Hands," for Anderson was one of Crane’s preferred American writers, and "Hands," the opening story of Winesburg, Ohio, is one of the most visible statements on American attitudes toward homosexuality before the twenties. In the story, as in Crane’s poem, it is touch, the supposed escape from language, that signals the escape from conventional gender expectations: "By the caress that was in his fingers he expressed himself … Under the caress of his hands, doubt and disbelief went out of the minds of the boys and they began also to dream" (Winesburg, 32). The change that occurs through this touch is appropriately imaged in both texts through the most standard figure for metamorphosis—the butterfly.
This is the first instance in Crane’s work of the rhetoric of homosexual transformation, and the poem is constructed entirely of simile and metonymy except for one moment. That moment, the metaphor in the central line of the text—"the thick bed of the wound"—is all the more important for its singularity,. The word "bed" suggests that the union between these two men has an erotic component, and it is only after this metaphorical and sublimated appearance of the homoerotic that the hands are transformed, the owner’s son’s becoming "Like wings of butterflies," and the worker’s "like the marks of wild ponies’ play." Although only obliquely acknowledged, homosexuality is not only that which ties the healing knot between worker and son but also the origin of metaphor in the poem.
If one reads the wound in "episode of Hands" as structurally linked to homosexuality, as others of Crane’s poems would invite us to do, that wound is also healed in the poem’s closure, for the close makes homosexuality the positive center of an affectionate and literally healing exchange (and a healing that is neither a "cure" or repression, as is implied in the madonna figure of [Crane’s earlier poem on Oscar Wilde entitled] "C33"). It represents instead the worker’s acceptance of the son’s "unexpected interest." The knot of solidarity between them comes from their not being defined any longer in the hierarchical relations of patriarchal masculinity and capitalist economy; rather, the poem ends with the sign of homosexual recognition: a knowing, smiling gaze. It is not surprising that Crane investigates homosexuality through this trope of wounding. In the discourse of psychoanalysis, it is structurally linked to castration, to lack or wounding, and it was no doubt often a condition of suffering for Crane and others of his generation. Making the metaphor appear natural in its appeal. But if we understand two further things about pain, it becomes clear that there are other possible links between wounding and homosexuality in Crane’s text. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry suggests that pain places us at the limits of language, at a level of experience that knows no object except the body (we do not experience pain "of," "about," or "for" something as we hunger for or fear a, b, or c), and it places us as well at a level of experience that can produce no signifier )according to Scarry, pain literally destroys language). Both of these structural readings of pain make its connections to homosexuality more significant for Crane, for homosexuality, like pain, had a troubled, almost nonexistent relation to referential language; it was both unmediated and unnamable. And it is possible as well that in Crane’s case homosexuality was a matter of masochistic pleasure, of knowing the body as the site on which self-empowerment was written as pain.
|Title||Thomas A. Yingling: on "Episode of Hands"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Thomas A. Yingling||Criticism Target||Hart Crane|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||29 Jun 2021|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text: New Thresholds, New Anatomies|
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