Criticism & Features

Year 2020: 30 Books

here is the sweet hand by francine j. harris: 2020 Poetry Finalist

By Megan Labrise

here is the sweet hand by francine j. harris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

francine j. harris’ gorgeous and profound here is the sweet hand is a gentle caress, a gut punch, a come-hither curved finger, a rib-tickler, and a stop-sign palm. Some of its poems can give you all five at once. On the other hand, you may not see it as I do. (I don’t even see it as I did the first time through.) This dynamic collection rewards rereading, rewards research, but let me be clear: it requires neither. A one-night stand with harris’ poems has the power to yield you pleasure, and far be it from me to judge.

If this seems an unusual citation, well, it’s a remarkable collection. What I’m trying to say is these poems, exploring femininity, blackness, queerness, nature, and institutions (political, academic, and disciplinary), have the power to move. They coax feeling. Herein harris wields language in deft approximation of how people actually think: at times in fragments, pausing in what seems like the middle of a thought, picking up the thread again (or not). Behold the opening of “Against Storm, Against Glib Thunder”:

When I was the red umbrella, her lover, I made a precision of hoist.

We understood stairs, my girl. We waited the hall, its curse, ’til the sky

undid clouds, uncoiled in loose slip of rain and I waited for the first

hushed sun to pattern after a harp above her, a sure sign of song as tarp,

a sun against patter, against storm, against glib thunder rumble, against

chatter, we rubbed. 

The speakers in these poems survey their surroundings as they assess their proximity to others and place(s) in the world. They beseech natural wonders in elegant apostrophe. They investigate misapprehension, maturity, and morals. And the poet does it in a wide range of intriguing forms: “Single Lines Looking Forward or One Monostich Past 45” is a Megazord of one-liners. (Among my favorites is number 38, “Melissa McCarthy could get it.”) “So is we thinking up new ways to fuck, or nah” is a phonetic remix of a song by Ty Dolla $ign, feat. the Weeknd. 

harris richly deserves her place in the pantheon of American poets. File these poems under metro-pastoral lyric, perhaps. I don’t know, I’m just a lover. But you may go from lover to love, as the speaker in “Against Storm, Against Glib Thunder” does, if you encounter this transformative work with an open heart. sweet hand has been extended to you: take it, and allow yourself to be revised. If Melissa McCarthy could get it, so can you.