Commentary: “Two Hands” Essay
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There are various familial relationships that most of us would often take for granted. Jon Stallworthy, for example, highlights that of a father and son in his poem, “Two Hands”. Throughout his depiction of these two characters, he emphasizes how two people who seem so similar, and are supposed to be intimate or close by default, can be almost alien to each others’ personalities and emotions. Several techniques, such as diction, themes and structure are utilized to portray the contrast between father and son.
In “Two Hands”, there are two main characters present: the son, who also narrates the text, and his father. The reader can depict the father to be a surgeon, or at least have a profession in the field of medicine, because of the use of terms such as “scalpel” or “lancet”, as well as expression like “fingers that have stitched new life”. In contrast, the same ‘two hands’ of the son have been utilized in a rather contrasting way; that of the field of literature. We can deduce this from his “fingers [that have] some style on paper.” Furthermore, there is no mention of any other characters in this poem, which can portray the significance of his father to the narrator, or even display how much he truly needs a father who is too preoccupied with his career.
One of the primary reasons that Stallworthy is able to spark a great deal of emotion from his reader is due to the choice of speaker. In this case, the son’s voice has been used to describe his relationship with his father. I think this has been done because his emotions of abandonment, sorrow and loneliness are very expressive and therefore make readers feel empathy for the son. He depicts himself as a son whose father pays no attention to him, and only to his work; almost as if being a father is an obligatory duty rather than a valued relationship.
There are several themes that bring out the emotions felt by the narrator in this text. For example, love is something that is lacking in the relationship between father and son. While it can be said that the son admires his father, which is depicted through the phrase, “Hand, you may have your chance to stitch a life for fingers that have stitched new life for many.” The narrator is describing his father’s accomplishments by stating that he has saved the lives of many, which shows love and respect for his father. However, there is no portrayal of emotion from the father’s side in the text, which can only show that according to the son, there is no love provided from the father’s side at all. Another vivid theme in the text is that of the conflict between family and career, which can be looked at individually for the son, as well as for the father.
This poem clearly implies that the father is married to his career, as he has almost no time to devote to his son. The final line, “he will be out again” is extremely powerful in showing how often he is out of the house. Furthermore, even when he is at home, he is “in his study… up late,” because “he has articles to read.” Overall, we can infer that the father feels like by working hard and supporting the family, he is fulfilling his duties, and therefore the concept of spending time and expressing love to his son are almost redundant, and of no value.
On the other hand, you have a son, who feels nothing but love, respect and adoration towards a father who has no regard for such emotions. He also feels that his career is worthless in comparison to that of his father’s. His hands have “save[d] no one, serve[d] no one, dance[d] with this pencil.” The use of the word ‘dance’ has playful and amateur connotations to it, which shows that his work of literature is meaningless to him. This tone of abandonment informs the readers of the son’s feelings of insecurity and inferiority in front of his father, while all alone he tries only to be close to him.
In a poem, the structure and topography play an extremely crucial role in the way a readers depicts the writing. Stallworthy has laid out “Two hands” in one long stanza, with a great deal of enjambment as well. This implies run-on thoughts, as well as providing a tone of overall reminiscence to the text. The lack of a concise structure gives the effect of thoughts being haphazardly thrown onto paper, in whichever order they may occur. Moreover, this style makes it seem like a story is being told. This is useful in depicting the character of the narrator, as well as provides the impression that he is writing a biography on his father. Once again, the line, “Hand, you may have your chance to stitch a life for fingers that have stitched new life for many,” reveals the narrator’s intentions. Where ‘stitching a life’ means writing a book to the son, to the father the very same phrase has a more literal meaning; that of saving a life, perhaps in surgery.
Over the course of this poem, the use of rhyme or rhythm is extremely subtle, and perhaps is only used in order to emphasize certain points. Stallworthy hasn’t used a specific rhyme scheme in his poem, to demonstrate that no conclusion has been drawn from the thoughts conveyed by the son. There is a great deal of expression of emotion; however he isn’t able to make anything out of it. In contrast, in the few places where slight rhyme has been utilized, there is some logical reasoning involved. For example, “Down the lancet margin his hand moves rapidly as mine moves slow. A spasm shakes the phone at this elbow.” In these lines, he is claiming that his father’s expertise exceed that of his own in the field of medicine, allowing him to scan the medical journal more rapidly. Overall, it can be reasoned that there are very few decisive or exact points being made, which is why the use of rhyme has been avoided.
The way a message is interpreted relies a great deal on the diction in which it has been said; therefore the word choice is another vital factor in “Two Hands”. Firstly, all the words describing emotions are of negative connotations. For example, “curse” or “sob”, imply feelings of frustration and helplessness. There is also no mention of love or family values, directly signifying that there is no evidence of it in their relationship either. In contrast, there are plenty of words to describe the father’s career, such as “lancet” and “scalpel”. The use or lack of use, of difference words indicates their existence and importance in the lives of the father and son. This would also explain why there are no emotions linking to the father, but many saddening ones linking to his son.
Throughout this text, Stallworthy implicates a very negative atmosphere, relation directly to the bumpy relationship between father and son. A mood of intensity is depicted through the use of phrases such as, “I curse tonight,”, where the son expresses his frustration over the fact that while his father is at home, with him, he is busy working. Even though they may be physically near, the father’s heart and mind do not stray from work. The tone is also often depressing or gloomy, which is highlighted by the fact that it is set during night time; this is when all fears are at their peak, and when one feels most lonely as well.
Finally, the poet’s extensive use of personification helps in illuminating the overall impression he wishes to bring across in the text. For example, “the pencil nodding stiffly” provides an image of a man working hard into the depths of the night; stern and focused. Furthermore, the personification of the scalpel in the phrase “led a scalpel an intricate dance” portrays the act of surgery as an art form, requiring a great deal of grace as well as skill. These two models illustrate the father as extremely hard working and skilled in his field of work. In contrast, an expression like “The phone has sobbed itself to sleep” highlights an extremely striking image of a young boy trying to cry himself to bed.
It provides a saddening effect on the reader, and also emphasizes the lack of emotion in the father. It is almost as if the situation is so depressing that even inanimate objects are crying out in sheer desperation. Finally, the son’s confusion and uncertainty is represented through the symbol of his hands, “whose indecisions keep [him] cursing nightly; fingers with some style on paper, elsewhere none.” He is perplexed by his current situation where his own hands seem so worthless in comparison to that of his fathers’, which leaves him in an unknowing state.
In general, Stallworthy utilizes various poetic devices in order to provide the simple of contrast between the father and son. The “Two Hands” signify that of the sons’, which seem so insignificant relative to his fathers’, who have saved so many lives through what can be called a graceful art. His inferiority, loneliness and helplessness are highlighted throughout the text, through the symbol of the two hands.