Tom Healy’s terse lines and spare poems draw attention to negative spaces – places of silence, critical gaps, and contemplative absence. What he gives us, consequently, is that which is crucial, essential, and known. Yet the binary implied by the title (with the knowing right hand) opens up the opportunity for speculation and wonder as to what is unknown, what is left unsaid, and the speaker’s/reader’s ability to recognize the fullness of experience: embracing what one knows or has while being cognizant of the fact that more, in whatever form, exists or can be imagined.
The four sections of the What the Right Hand Knows do not flesh out a full speaker or an entire person—perhaps such a task is better handled in prose, if anything.
The poems thrive, though, on an understanding of limitation (of the senses, of experience, of language, of understanding). The collection’s project is not so telling; instead, there is no predetermined, overworked design to the collection. There is no Aristotelian build up, climax, and easing towards an end. These poems “furiously…dig” without a particular revelation or prize in mind. Through Healy’s focused harrowing of the past, daily particulars, and the stories behind moments of pain, awe, and the familiar, the reader is comfortable in asking, with the speaker, what “the beauty / of a stranger mean[s]” or, more appropriately, what the beauty of strangeness means. Perhaps the realization is that the meaning is not exactly what is most important, but the recognition of beauty in the stranger and the humanness of that response. After all, there is intimacy in eccentricity.
Lyrical, narrative, always measured, these poems explore territory from a family farm, flying a plane, living with a potentially deadly disease, to the dynamics of a relationship and the discovery of physical difference. Even when treading potentially sentimental territory, the ample silences created by the exacting nature of Healy’s lines and stanzas, eschew potential pitfalls. The titular poem is a prime example of discovery, loss, and the embrace of silence.
The initial lines of the poem announce the speaker’s partial deafness:
I am not in stereo.
Deaf in one ear,
I am unable
with any accuracy
to pinpoint clamor
The directness of these two statements, combined with the authority of the taut lines, evokes a simplicity that is further complicated in the poem. The assertion that the speaker’s deficiency rests in an inability to recognize nuance (in sound, explicitly, in broader terms, by extension) is hugely ironic. The heart of this poem relies upon the recognition and exploration of nuance, after all. The assertion that the right hand knows x implicitly suggests that the left hand knows y. But what exactly that other knowledge may be is mystery.
When the speaker realizes that he hears with only one ear, the discovery presents the poet with a challenge and opportunity to relate in a language completely his own a profoundly personal reality. This reality is not one completely marked by loss, though. Told from a child’s perspective, the poem does not suggest that the speaker ever experienced a different way of (not) hearing. But the speaker is aware of something special, dangerous, privileged, or precious:
hearing and not –
I kept the sugar taste
of that secrecy
Therein lies the speaker’s impetus for wonderment and the reader’s invitation to explore spacious silences. This is the moment of the poet’s initiation into a kind of special knowledge for the mind’s and hands’ precise shaping.