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On "Episode of Hands"

Langdon Hammer

… We can get a fuller sense of [Crane’s] inclusive ideal by turning to "Episode of Hands" -- a poem, written in 1920, that recounts Crane’s attention to a worker injured in a factory owned by his father. We know from letters that the poem is unusually close to a fecord of Crane’s lived experience, which is in keeping with Crane’s efforts here to surmount obstacles between literature and life, and between men of different classes. Initially, the one man’s attention to – or "interest" in – the other, and particularly a man of another class, causes the worker some additional pain:

The unexpected interest made him flush.
Suddenly he seemed to forget the pain, –
Consented, – and held out
One finger from the others.

Hands and eyes are the parts of the body that fashion bonds in Crane’s poetry, and the marks that they frequently bear testify to the extreme difficulty of this task. … Here, in an instant of forgetting and consent, one pair of hands dresses the wound of the other, a pastoral vision supplants the workplace (as sunlight glitters "in and out among the wheels"), and the two men pause, bound together in one gaze:

And factory sounds and factory thoughts
Were banished from him by that larger, quieter hand
That lay in his with the sun upon it.
And as the bandage knot was tightened
The two men smiled into each other’s eyes.

The repetition of the simple conjunction "and," in contrast to the usually disjunctive and compressed syntax of Crane’s verse, announces a new experience of continuity, and permits (as the same use of language does in "My Grandmother’s Love Letters") a lucid expression of private feeling. As it is exemplified by the shared pronoun "he" (in these lines, "his" hand is the hand of the "factory owner’s son"), the bond ("the bandage knot") that is established is erotic and fraternal at once; and the smile connecting each pair of eyes to the other (a smile that is the expressive sign of covenant in all of Crane’s poetry) recognizes a unity of feeling or assent overcoming the class distinctions of the workplace, figured as the wound that is incurred there. Note too that the class barrier that must be overcome derives in this case from the son’s bond to the father, the capitalist. It is not that the one man has been elevated to the other’s place, or that the owner’s son has joined ranks with the workers; rather, the two men have met as brothers (members of one generation) in a place apart.

From Langdon Hammer, Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism (Princeton: Princeton U P, 1993) 130-31.

Thomas A. Yingling

"Episode of Hands," another early poem of Crane’s, is atypical of this early work, for it depicts in a naturalistic fashion—more like Sandburg or Masters than Wilde or Rimbaud—a simple narrative of male bonding and its effect on the poet. "Episode of Hands" depicts the brief moment when a "factory owner’s son" bandages the hand of a worker bleeding from an accident in the factory (Crane was, of course, a factory owner’s son), and the poem begins with the embarrassment the two feel in being thrown into this atypical masculine relation: "The unexpected interest made him flush." It ends, however, is a warm and gentle union between the two men: "And as the bandage knot was tightened / The two men smiled into each other’s eyes." Crane uses the smile as a sign of union and interpersonal knowledge throughout his career, and it is important to see that he implies a healing of both men in this smile, for the owner’s son is allowed a reprieve from his alienating position as the owner’s son. The "knot" brings the two together in a new relation: the "factory sounds and factory thoughts / Were banished from him [the son] by that larger, quieter hand / That lay in his." Crane offers this assessment of the worker’s hand, making the trace of its labor an inspiration rather than an alienation:

The knots and notches,—many in the wide
Deep hand that lay in his,—seemed beautiful.
They were like the marks of wild ponies’ play,—
Bunches of new green breaking the hard turf.

The central stanza depicting the actual moment of bandaging is the most interesting, however; here the owner’s son is made aware of the beauty of his own hands through his connection with the worker’s:

And as the fingers of the factory owner’s son,
That knew a grip from books and tennis
As well as one for iron and leather,—
As his taut, spare fingers wound the gauze
Around the thick bed of the wound,
His own hand seemed to him
Like wings of butterflies
Flickering in sunlight over summer fields.

The smile of the wings almost certainly borrows from the character Wings Biddlebaum in Sherwood Anderson’s short story "Hands," for Anderson was one of Crane’s preferred American writers, and "Hands," the opening story of Winesburg, Ohio, is one of the most visible statements on American attitudes toward homosexuality before the twenties. In the story, as in Crane’s poem, it is touch, the supposed escape from language, that signals the escape from conventional gender expectations: "By the caress that was in his fingers he expressed himself … Under the caress of his hands, doubt and disbelief went out of the minds of the boys and they began also to dream" (Winesburg, 32). The change that occurs through this touch is appropriately imaged in both texts through the most standard figure for metamorphosis—the butterfly.

This is the first instance in Crane’s work of the rhetoric of homosexual transformation, and the poem is constructed entirely of simile and metonymy except for one moment. That moment, the metaphor in the central line of the text—"the thick bed of the wound"—is all the more important for its singularity,. The word "bed" suggests that the union between these two men has an erotic component, and it is only after this metaphorical and sublimated appearance of the homoerotic that the hands are transformed, the owner’s son’s becoming "Like wings of butterflies," and the worker’s "like the marks of wild ponies’ play." Although only obliquely acknowledged, homosexuality is not only that which ties the healing knot between worker and son but also the origin of metaphor in the poem.

If one reads the wound in "episode of Hands" as structurally linked to homosexuality, as others of Crane’s poems would invite us to do, that wound is also healed in the poem’s closure, for the close makes homosexuality the positive center of an affectionate and literally healing exchange (and a healing that is neither a "cure" or repression, as is implied in the madonna figure of [Crane’s earlier poem on Oscar Wilde entitled] "C33"). It represents instead the worker’s acceptance of the son’s "unexpected interest." The knot of solidarity between them comes from their not being defined any longer in the hierarchical relations of patriarchal masculinity and capitalist economy; rather, the poem ends with the sign of homosexual recognition: a knowing, smiling gaze. It is not surprising that Crane investigates homosexuality through this trope of wounding. In the discourse of psychoanalysis, it is structurally linked to castration, to lack or wounding, and it was no doubt often a condition of suffering for Crane and others of his generation. Making the metaphor appear natural in its appeal. But if we understand two further things about pain, it becomes clear that there are other possible links between wounding and homosexuality in Crane’s text. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry suggests that pain places us at the limits of language, at a level of experience that knows no object except the body (we do not experience pain "of," "about," or "for" something as we hunger for or fear a, b, or c), and it places us as well at a level of experience that can produce no signifier )according to Scarry, pain literally destroys language). Both of these structural readings of pain make its connections to homosexuality more significant for Crane, for homosexuality, like pain, had a troubled, almost nonexistent relation to referential language; it was both unmediated and unnamable. And it is possible as well that in Crane’s case homosexuality was a matter of masochistic pleasure, of knowing the body as the site on which self-empowerment was written as pain.

From Thomas A. Yingling, "The Homosexual Lyric," Chapter 4 in Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text: New Thresholds, New Anatomies (Chicago: U Chicago P, 1990), 111-113

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