By Gordon Adams

Each finger was different.  None would be called “beautiful.”  Not quite claws, but sometimes close.  The joints were swollen with arthritis, bulging out, each one in a different direction.  The skin was creased and lined.  The nails, unpainted, were a sickly gray-yellow.  The skin mottled with age spots.  The palms were puffy and misshapen.

The fingernails had been dirtied and cleaned a million times – she picked them regularly, sliding the up side of one nail along the inside of another to remove the dirt, fish scales, sawdust, mortar, glue, snot, sand, blood and other substances that had taken up temporary resident at the edge of her body.

They were working hands – had cut a thousand pieces of colored paper, sanded wood, mixed concrete, held a fishing pole, gutted the fish.  They always moved with a nervous energy, picking, shoving, cutting, doing.  The alternative would be “idle Hands,” and everyone knew whose business that was.  They were her restless spirit at work, instruments of her obsessions and compulsions.

There was no calm in those hands, no monk at prayerful meditation.  They never fluttered, as that would have been too feminine.  They jabbed, stabbed, painted, repaired, and destroyed.  They did things, always in meaningful, purposeful, instructive motion.  “Don’t waste time,” they said; “do something.” “Have you nothing to do?”  Here, shuck peas, snap beans, paint, strip wallpaper, shovel, row, draw, type, play the piano, lay a flagstone, can a peach, move a box, load a car, feed the dog.

The fingertips were numb – the hammer blows, cuts, bruises, broken nails, knife slices had left their mark.  The diabetes spreading through her body was drawing her healing blood away from the extremities.  The nerves were giving up.  It was hard to tell if she was burning herself in the hot water tap, the frying pan, or moving a log in the fire.

As she withdrew, the hands became insensate, clumsy.  They could no longer hold a button, thread a needle, bait a hook, tie a knot, slice bread in a nice even line.  They could not, would not, caress a child’s hair or spittle down an errant cowlick.  They no longer sliced the air in judgment, could not steer a car over a rutted mountain road, hold a thermometer in a child’s mouth, swing a pick at hardened garden soil. Paint the images of oak trees or sunsets on a canvas, type manuscripts and papers, fill in the tables of investment data.

Could not grasp, haul, feed, fix, hold, touch, squeeze. Or applaud, slap, pat, push, pull, wriggle, wrap, tear, tickle, rub, sand, dust, sweep, vacuum, shush, fondle, poke, finger, scratch, jab, wave, warn, waggle, press, pump, grasp, grip, hammer, punch, prod, pommel, punish, or pinch.

They could not lay bricks, cut roses, pull out a splinter, thread needles, spin the wheel of a sewing machine, spank a naughty child, lance boils, build a broad jump pit, push lumber through a table saw, or can tomatoes.

Now they scrabbled at the edge of a plastic bag that held yesterday’s half-eaten sandwich.  Jabbed the fingers with a needle to test the rise and fall of blood sugar.  Lined up the week’s pills against a row of pencils, dropping them awkwardly into the sections of a plastic pill-holder, and give up.  The fingers had curled in on themselves, lost the motion and flexibility that allowed tactile engagement with the world.  They scraped and fumbled, twitched and fussed, picked up and dropped.  No more firm holding, sharp grasping.  Just a wobble and a wave, a hesitation.

Lying at rest, they moved now and then in helpless, meaningless patterns, and were finally still.


Copyright Gordon Adams 12.24.2004

Gordon Adams is a poet, actor, teacher, and consultant in Silver Spring, Maryland. He can be reached at

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3 thoughts on “Hands (a prose poem)”

  1. Wow! Just wow. That is a moving, emotionally packed piece right there. I can see, feel, touch those hands and can sense a whole person through that brief acreage.

  2. I first heard this at the Conference on World Affairs a few years ago when Gordon Adams read it aloud, which was an engrossing experience. I’m grateful for his permission to post it here.

  3. so very, very poignant…and sad…I have seen so many people I love lose the use of their hands over time. I, myself, have had bouts with loss of sensation in my hands and feet and it puts everything into a state of dissociation with the world. Our hands are how we connect, relate, feel, grasp, “take hold” of almost everything in our lives. (ties in with your post about the “Handless Maiden” fairy tale”) I’m impressed with the litany of adjectives! (next time I play MadLibs, I’ll have a copy of the poem nearby!)

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