Perhaps the remarkable power of this poem lies in its suturing of two human pursuits, or in its reading of one pursuit in the light of another, or, again, in its distillation of a long cultural and literary tradition into a brief narrative of a failed amorous encounter. I am speaking, of course, of love (or sex) and hunting. The collocation is as old as literature itself. The Greeks and the Romans, then Petrarch, then the Gawain poet, then Wyatt’s anguished chase after the deer that must not be touched in ‘Whoso List to Hunt’, or his lament for lovers long gone in ‘They Flee From Me’. On one level, it is such a simple metaphor: the hunt stands for the act of bedding someone, most often a woman; sex is war, or death, or both. To fulfil a desire is to kill it, and to risk killing the object of one’s affection (‘These violent delights have violent ends / And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, / Which as they kiss consume’, as Shakesepare’s friar put it). The Gawain poet intersperses his hunting narratives with bedroom scenes, or perhaps it is the other way around. But the ‘Composition’ narrator is aware of her status as prey; she has identified her captor: ‘Last night I met a trophy hunter’. And in that little word ‘met’ lies the difference between her and the stag. Unlike the animal, the woman knows the set-up, knows ‘what the game was’. That word ‘game’ means much in this poem: an activity following predetermined rules, but also a wild animal to be hunted for sport, and the tricks men play on women. The speaker is being played, yes, but still she claims that she is the one who plays.
So who is in power? Because he may be a hunter, but the speaker-poet collects trophies, too – people to write about. We see it in the image of ‘my fingers’ splayed out ‘like the antlers of a stag’. The poem hinges on this comparison. We get a stag here, not a demure female doe, and one with antlers, which are used for self-defense and to signal virility. And so writers use their hands: the movement of the hand produces the written word, which can allure or defend, praise or slander. Revenge is an implicit threat in the writerly encounter: displease me, and I will misrepresent you (‘I’ll see you in my next book’, August Strindberg reportedly promised). Note the associations of slender things with power or violence in the poem: the grandmother’s fluted ‘champagne glasses’, the ‘guns’ cleaned with a ‘long thin pipe’ – markers of status and identity. The speaker’s slender fingers, then, take on some of that power by their very lingustic proximity to these items. In fact, both guns and glasses are meant to be handled, and the hand at the centre of the poem has the potential to do so.
And yet – the hunter catches the poet’s hand and ‘t[akes] the wrist’, as if cutting off the blood supply, desiring only his trophy, the ‘pale and palmate’ thing meant to be hung on the wall, no longer able to write. Had the speaker been male, we would have spoken of castration. But perhaps it isn’t so much a male or female as writerly thing. The trophy hunter wants a disembodied hand, a stag’s crown, to hang on his wall. One thinks of the fetishization of writers and their objects and bodies, the fascination with Woolf’s nose, Byron’s club foot, Shelley’s withered heart, tucked away in one of Mary Shelley’s drawers. Keats, not far off dying, stretched out
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience – calm’d – see here it is –
I hold it towards you.
It is the most chilling thing he ever wrote: angry, bitter, threatening. Observe the implication: you would wish your own lifeblood could flow through me, so that I could write. Your blood would be my ink. We should fear the writer’s hand, fear it especially, perhaps, when it is severed from the moderating influences of the poet herself. Bergin certainly is drawn to the hand as the link between the human being and the world. In ‘Himalayan Balsam for a Soldier’, the soldier encounters ‘guys with one arm’ and sings, absurdly, ‘There is blood on my hand, la la, / there is blood on my hand, la, la’. There is the bloodied hand, and then there is ‘your good hand’, which can hold a talisman: ‘how full your good / hand will be with the / exploding.’ Hands are not innocent body parts, Bergin intuits; they are associated with violence, with handling guns – ‘You turn this (the right) hand to grasp the stock. / You turn this (the left) hand to grasp the barrel’, as she writes in ‘Red Flag’. They make you think of sex, and they betray class anxieties. The speaker of ‘The Passion Flower’ won’t ‘shake’ the ‘barman’s hand or lift the drink […] for fear he will exclaim at the sight / of my hands […] He thinks me rude but it’s the / muteness in my hands.’
Yes, of course hands can be mute: the image is startling at first, but it also immediately seems true. We can find something like muteness also in the title of ‘Composition for the Left Hand’. ‘Composition’, as the OED will tell you, is ‘The action of putting together or combining; the fact of being put together or combined; combination (of things as parts or elements of a whole)’, but also ‘The due arrangement of words into sentences, and of sentences into periods; the art of constructing sentences and of writing prose or verse’, and then, perhaps most importantly, ‘The action or art of disposing or arranging in due order the parts of a work of art, esp. of a drawing or painting, so as to form a harmonious whole’. This composition for the left hand has a double meaning: it is the description of the poem itself, and of the transitory piece of art that the trophy hunter creates when he clutches the narrator’s wrist and ‘let[s]’ her flare her fingers – a still life out of a Middle English hunting tapestry. The speaking – writing – hand is silenced in the earnest grasping of the trophy hunter. But if encounters like these did not happen – if the hunt stopped – what would be left to write about? Hunter and hunted: the eternal themes of poetry.
Last night I met a trophy hunter
who admired my slender fingers –
he held my left hand up to the light
and praised the pretty white skin
on my palm and let me flare my fingers
out like the antlers of a stag – he took my wrist
and I didn’t insist on a phone number –
I gave him mine,
even knowing what the game was.
I played it and all the time I knew
he’d want to claim some trophy or some prize.
He was a trophy hunter –
believe me, he had guns
in a glass cabinet like the one
my grandmother kept her champagne glasses in
(such rich families I’ve been involved in)
and he cleaned them regularly
with a long thin pipe
and a soft oily rag –
he was a paying hunter, you see,
the best in the country,
and he really didn’t want me at all.
He only wanted some kind of trophy,
something pale and palmate
that he could hang on his wall
after the whole ugly thing was over.
From This is Yarrow (Carcanet, 2013). Reproduced with permission of the author.