Tuesday, July 6, 2010

ah ah ah ah ah (ah)

Fiona’s description of Yma’s discovery of the hand, and hand-writing, recalled to me a single edition published by Allen Ginsberg in 1975 called The Poet’s Hand Book. It is comprised of 24 Beat hands traced and illuminated: Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Anne Waldman, Gerald Malanga, Bill Berkson, Jim Carroll, and others. I’ve only been able to find this one picture from the book, Ginsberg’s own with characteristic mantras scrawled on his fingernails. (The book goes for $6500 at Biblio.com, if anyone is curious/wealthy enough to see more of it.) I particularly love the floating “ah” that hovers between the thumb and the forefinger. To me it signals something yet to be grasped. I’m also fond of this odd little sentence from the seller’s description: “Lefties win on paper 14 2 10 but only on paper.”

The place of the hand has often been a contentious one in the history of printing, but the two are more intertwined than is commonly thought. Manuscripts, as Peter Stallybrass has noted, were a concept largely invented by printing, as the handwritten text was commonly defined against mechanical typesetting after the advent of the printing press. But print and writing mixed as early as the early modern production of indulgences, which, to save time (as a great number of indulgences were being meted out, especially by the time of the Reformation), left blank spaces for names and debts to be filled in. Like later fill-in-the-blanks like tax forms, checkbooks, contracts, and Mad Libs, these types of documents weren’t considered complete until the hand had made its mark in the form of an autograph. This was the writing of the self, through the hand, through touch, and moreover through our primary organ of touch.

Roman Catholic indulgence, 1521

Perhaps the most significant thing that we can write is our own names. It is probably the most common thing that we write by hand in the form of credit card slips or, if we are marginally famous, the scribblings on cocktail napkins (or poetry broadsides, as we are more accustomed to here at the press). But this returns us to the idea of the hand, of the fingerprint being some unique, signature marker of ourselves, of our actual bodies, which Ginsberg understood with The Poet’s Hand Book, and which Yma realized instinctually with her word-and-hand play. I am reminded that the French word for “now,” maintenant, literally means “hand-holding,” which shows how the time of any experience and its communication is intrinsically connected to the physical sensation of holding pen to paper. In writing we literally inscribe a part of ourselves onto a page. And like the indulgences of the age of incunabula, the printed section marks a time of the past, while the blank spaces open to unknown futures, dates and signatures, or prayers in Ginsberg's case, the yawning "ahs" just out of reach.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The hand had stirred her mind.

Yma still doesn't feel very comfortable gripping a pencil, but she never tires of dictating. Recently we've been gathering her dictated compositions into a collection that we'd like to make into a book. In going through the work I noticed that Yma created two writing games that we can present in her book: the "hand game" and the "speak for the trees game." Both of these games sprung out of the moment very organically and were instant classics. We were cruising through the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt County, feeling the cool breath of the ferns when Yma informed us in a languid tone that she would let us know what the trees were saying.

Speaking for the Trees

The sticks of the lemon tree in the riverbed
the trees in the river
the bridge over the rocky path

The scroll is on the cave of the beast
the thousand scrolls of love

papyrus, frames of fresh bamboo

we can get through all this
we have passed it & know that it is true

"Speaking for the trees" reminds me of a book we have called Who Speaks for Wolf about a tribe of Native Americans who are in competition with wolves for the space they occupy. I've also heard of Shamans speaking on behalf of places and animals to their people–being intermediaries with the wild. It's an old and venerable concept that she tapped into and I liked the resulting poem.

Another time we were lying on Yma's bed reading The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett. As I read aloud she placed her hand over the text, so instead of reading the next word I said the word "hand." Yma liked it and asked if I we could continue like that for a while. Then we started writing down the phrases as we went. We went back to The Secret Garden and read it through later so we didn't have a hole in the beautiful narrative.


In a house with one hundred mysteriously closed hands
there is no doubt that the hand, the fresh,
strong hand had given her an appetite.

The hand had stirred her mind.

She had been too weak to care about the hand.
But already she felt she could look at the ivy
growing on the hand. Howsoever carefully
she looked, she could see nothing
but thickly growing hands.

And, she looked them over, as the tree-tops
inside her hand- it seemed so silly-
she said to herself –to be near the hand.
If she ever should find the hidden hand,
she would be ready.

Today was Yma's first typesetting lesson. We got out the diagram of the California job case so she could search out the letters and place them upside-down into the composing stick. It had been months since we played the hand game, but the concept was awakened in her mind and she composed "Why did the hand go into the hand?" Then she placed a little star above it shining down on the cryptic words.