Hands by Safiya Sinclair


**here’s an essay i wrote for my lit theory class which i later had to drop bc i did not go three times and if u miss three times u fail. what a bogus policy. i learned and did the reading and shit ok!!! smfh anyway here

A Close Reading of Hands by Safiya Sinclair


Close reading of poetry is important because it allows us better insight to a poem’s messages and themes, and it gives us a deeper appreciation of the complex meanings of works, one we might not get on our first or second read-throughs. For example, in the poem “Hands,” by Safiya Sinclair, a first-time read through might only give you a basic understanding of the narrative: a daughter telling the audience of her mother and her home. On the surface, the speaker merely tells of how her mother grew up an orphan whose livelihood depended on the ocean, wandering the shore, picking up things she could use; later, she begins working for American sailors until one gets her pregnant, but does not stay around to raise the child. The mom, in distress, tries to abort the baby with fishing line but fails, the baby is born, and the mother finds meaning and purpose for being a vessel for the future. While the story alone is quite tragic, close reading reveals the underlying poignancy and beauty of the work: vivid and powerful figurative language imbue the ocean with a sublime character; combined with its structure and cadence, the poem envelops readers in an emotional, honest, tragic yet hopeful atmosphere that resonates with readers pertinently.

Figurative language is one element of “Hands” that close reading can unpack to give the poem a deeper meaning. Personification, metaphor, metonymy, and imagery create the ocean to be a mighty, timeless being in the poem that informs the whole narrative, including character and setting, while metonymy works to further shrink other elements of the poem. Personification first occurs in the poem when the speakers says, ‘the surf rewrites our silences’ (Line 1). Not only is the ocean given the power to write, but to rewrite—to write over, or perhaps to improve upon the voice of the speaker, her mother, even her whole community. Then, a metaphor is drawn comparing the speaker to a reader and the ocean to a book: “the sea a dark page / I am trying to turn:” (Lines 3-4). Typically, one would think of the reader as in control of the story, in that they can choose to turn the page to move on with the story; however, the metaphor is turned on its head because the speaker cannot turn the page—the ocean is so powerful that it is still in control. The ocean is then personified as a parental figure to the mother of the speaker:

“Her hands have not been her hands

since she was twelve,

motherless and shucking whatever the sea

could offer, each day orphaned in the tide


of her own necessity—where the men-o-war

ballooned, wearing her face, her anchor of a heart

reaching, mooring for any blasted thing:


sea-roach and black-haired kelp, jeweled perch

or a drop of pearl made with her smallest self,

her night-prayers a hushed word of thanks.” (Lines 6-15).


The speaker’s mother as a child is ‘motherless,’ but the sea ‘offer(s)’ her things to ‘shuck’—presumably shellfish—to sustain herself. The ocean ‘offering’ the mother sustenance is evidence of personification, since it indicates some form of consciousness, enough to understand the mother’s desires and give something to respond to them. Though the ocean helps sustain the mother, it is not personified to the point of replacing a parent—for the mother of the speaker is ‘each day orphaned in the tide / of her own necessity’ (Lines 9-10). That the ocean is personified enough to help a little but not completely save or satisfy the mother gives the personification nuance and believability. Furthermore, it allows readers to easily draw out a deeper meaning of the ocean and how it operates in the speaker’s mother’s life, because readers generally can relate to non-reciprocal parent-child relationships, whereas relying on the ocean for one’s livelihood might be hard to imagine. The helplessness of the mother is emphasized with use of metaphor and metonymy with the ocean “wearing her face, her anchor of a heart / reaching, mooring for any blasted thing / sea-roach and black-haired kelp, jeweled perch / or a drop of pearl made with her smallest self, […]” (Lines 14-17). A metaphor compares her heart to an anchor, desperately searching the vast ocean for something to moor onto—perhaps the metaphor conveys the helplessness of the relationship, in which the ocean has all the power in its relationship with the mother, but is not cognizant or empathetic enough to give her what she needs. The metaphor works especially well since the mother and her emotions are represented by ‘her heart,’ a metonym that, combined with the further shrinks the mother in comparison to the vast ocean, drawing into herself until she becomes the size of a pearl. The figurative language is further enriched by the imagery in the poem, evident with specific examples of the ocean’s ‘offerings’ which are heavily loaded with sensory details that lend toward the imagery of the ocean, and such strong imagery inserts readers into the world created by the poem by appealing to senses. Visual appeals are made by images of the color black, or light bouncing off a jewel; scent appeals conveyed by strong-smelling details like kelp and perch, all details the speaker would experience in her home, “this smashed archipelago. / Our wild sea-grape kingdom” (Line 30). The speaker, mother, and setting both are shrunken by the ocean that surrounds them and sustains them.

The structure of “Hands” also lends toward the meaning of the poem—caesuras, enjambment and cadence are formal elements of the work that heighten the figurative language and give the work an ethos of pensiveness. Caesuras are natural pauses in the delivery of speech, and are best indicated in the poem by marks of punctuation that indicate a pause, such as dashes, colons, semi-colons, commas, and periods. These pauses add to the rhythm of the poem and can create dramatic buildup by placing emphasis on certain parts within the poem due to the way they would be delivered. Enjambment refers to the way lines are broken up into stanzas within the poem, and whether there is a pause at the end of the line, normally indicated by punctuation. Enjambment can add meaning to a poem by emphasizing certain themes within it. Run-on feeling  in terms of rhythm and meaning, showing connections and creating tension between thoughts through juxtaposition, paradox. For example, in Hands:


“This hand-me-down life burns sufficiently tragic—

here what was cannibal masters the colonial


curse, carved our own language of the macabre,

sucking on the thumb of our own disparity. Holding

her spliff in the wind, she probes and squalls,


trying to remember the face of her own mother,

our island or some strange word she once found

amongst the filth of sailors whose beds she made,


whose shoes she shined, whose guns

she cleaned, while the white bullet of America

ricocheted in her brain. […]” (Lines 17-27)

Line 17 begins as a complete sentence that makes an assertion and ends on a dash, indicating a caesura where one would pause to take a breath before listing evidence to back up the assertion. The end-stop gives the poem a sense of structural stability that is subverted in Line 18 which ends with enjambment and stanza break, leaving the reader’s eyes on a dangling modifier, ‘colonial.’ Though the enjambment defies expected structural patterns, the subversion ends up strengthening the meaning of the line, since ‘the colonial’ is being mastered by ‘the cannibal’ anyway, which would arguably require subverting forms of domination, like hegemonic grammatical structures. Caesuras emphasize aspects of tragedy and colonialism, placing pauses after “macabre” (Line 19) and “disparity” (Line 20). The caesura in Line 20 combines with the enjambment after the next word, “Holding” to foster a shift in time to present day, in which the mother stands smoking and reminiscing. The next stanza has fewer caesuras, and those indicated by punctuation only use commas, which do not indicate an extended pause—the rhythm speeds up as an effect, building tension as the mother does more and more for soldiers that are the source of much of her distress, whether it be her mixed feelings about her child with one of them, or their connection to the imperialist United States. Both enjambment and caesura create a sense of cadence in the poem, especially since the poem is free verse and lacks a set meter. Cadence is also informed by the phonetics of the lines, or alliteration, assonance, and consonance. For example, within “cannibal masters the colonial / curse, carved our own language of the macabre,” (Lines 18-19) the ‘c’ and ‘m’ sounds repeat, shaping the rhythm, texture, and rise and fall of the lines. In the next stanzas, ‘c’ sounds repeat with verbs like ‘cleaned’ while more ‘sh’ sounds come into play with repetitive ‘she’s, ‘shined’ and ‘ricochet.’ Hard ‘c’ sounds also match the harshness of the subject matter of colonialism, while softer ‘m’s and ‘sh’s might undo that harshness a bit and made it more melodic. The phonetics of the piece also reinforce the ocean theme, making onomatopoeic sounds of the ocean like waves crashing on the beach.

Both the structure and the language of “Hands,” lend toward its overall atmosphere, which is perhaps reminiscent of history told within an oral tradition: honest, raw, visceral, tragic, and yet beautiful and hopeful at the same time. A return to the beginning of the poem illuminates how the tone is set up from the beginning with, ‘the surf rewrites our silences’ (Line 1). The personification immediately sets up a tone of honesty, a cession of power to something greater than the human voice, which tinges the rest of the poem with a sense of visceral unknowability. The emotional unpacking of the mother’s life then gives the poem a sense of pathos appeal that immerses readers in the melancholy day-to-day of an impoverished girl, without making it pitiful or pandering. Even the structure of the poem creates a rhythm that lends to the tone; and it is only after a close reading, one can garner so much meaning from “Hands.” By examining closely the figurative language, structural elements (like caesuras, enjambment, and cadence), and ways playing with sound through consonance and assonance can create an overall immersive mood to the poem that leaves readers with a lasting impression—one that truly allows a fantastic starting point for even deeper criticism, whether it be sociohistorical, feminist, or post-colonial.




Works Cited

Sinclair, Safiya. “Hands.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, 23 June 2016. Web. 23 Feb.



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