It’s still Friday for some of you, anyway. Well, we’ve come to 1936, a real banner year for poetry in the English-speaking world. Tons of talented poets at various stages in their career, all publishing some top-quality work. I doubt I’ll get to them all before I’ve made it through the novel for 1936—Honey in the Horn, for which my first post will go live at some point this weekend—but I’ll do my best. Certainly there are some classics here that I’ve always loved and am excited to jump into. For today, I present for your consideration a selection from Dylan Thomas’s Twenty-Five Poems entitled “The Hand That Signed the Paper”:
The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.
The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose’s quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.
The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.
The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor stroke the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.
Thomas is so often abstract and obscure—a struggle even for a reader very comfortable with the unexpected and almost indecipherable sentence structure of a modern poet. But here he is very direct, and I’d like to suggest it’s because he knows this idea is a critically important one to communicate directly. He suspends himself inside this one powerful image—the hand (disembodied, isn’t it? almost giant in our imaginations?) scribbling briefly, and the devastation that follows in the pen’s wake. And within that image, he plays the consequences of this event out over and over, sometimes in very direct language—“halved a country”—and sometimes in very metaphorical terms—the “five kings”. Thomas is so effective here in part because he uses such simple words, often only one or two syllables, very punchy Anglo-Saxon words predominating in phrases like “these five kings did a king to death” or “great is the hand that holds dominion over man by a scribbled name”.
And the importance of that disembodied hand is unmistakable for me. Thomas is confronting the reality that we detach ourselves from our actions, especially when we have been given some kind of power or authority. It is much easier to remain peaceful in one’s mind and heart when, rather than see the results of one’s actions, a paper is signed that authorizes violent action by someone else. There is nothing violent about a signature—we do not have to confront the reality of our cruelty, our callous disregard for human life. It would be easy for us, therefore, to try to put ourselves on the sidelines in this poem. It’s a poem about Hitler, we suggest, or Mussolini—one of those 1930s dictators. They’re the kind of people whose signed name kills and maims. Not us—how could it be us?
But we live in a society—by we I mean to say “Americans”, although not just Americans—that separates and insulates us from the consequences of our decisions as much as any medieval king was. If we buy a product produced by coerced child laborers, there are no screams when we sign the credit card slip, no pleas for mercy as we watch the clerk bag up our purchase. We don’t pour poison into the city’s water supply—we just turn the key in our car’s ignition, and casually remind ourselves that we really ought to get that oil leak fixed. As long as we can distance the circumstances of our daily lives from the outcomes dependent on them, we can live as free from emotion as Thomas’s pitiless hand.
This is not to say I think Thomas is aiming at us alone. I think there clearly were concerns in his work about the use and abuse of power, and the 1930s in Europe (and America, honestly) are a decade in which many good people thought that handing over power to a strong leader was the path to success. Thomas reminds us how great—great and terrible—it is for a hand to hold dominion over human beings. The people to whom we entrust power will be effective, as his poem admits, but at what cost to us? It’s important to remember that the atrocities of the 1940s were made possible by the fears of the 1930s—that the Holocaust was engineered not by monsters but by men and women who, like Thomas’s five kings, knew how to count the dead but not how to soften wounds or stroke fevered brows. They were limited in this way by choice, because they felt they could not afford pity, perhaps, or because by the time they recognized the world they were creating, a hand had already signed a paper that governed their actions. In this way, no one really took on themselves the burden of evil—the hand, devoid of tears, never had to directly confront the results of that signature, and the people who made that hell a reality were only taking orders from that ruling hand, a hand that “doubled the globe of dead and halved a country”, quite literally.
The most effective reading of this poem I have ever heard was not a recording by Thomas (though he did read his poetry publicly, and well). It is included in a documentary by Errol Morris called The Fog of War. In the film, Morris focuses on the man behind America’s involvement in Vietnam, Robert McNamara, a man whose name still inspires anger and even hatred among many people who lived through the Vietnam years and held him responsible for that tragic conflict. McNamara recites the poem from memory to the camera, a man haunted by violence and yet anxious to explain why his best intentions all went so wrong. A reminder that the hands that sign papers sometimes do so on our behalf in this, the land of the free, the city on the hill.