Book Review: A Bag of Hands

A Bag of Hands
Mather Schneider
Rattle, Studio City, CA, 2018
Rattle Chapbook Prize Selection
Runner-Up in 2017 Rattle Chapbook Prize

Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor

I love the sheer honesty of Mather Schneider’s poems. He’s a poet and cab driver in Tucson, Arizona who was born in Peoria, Illinois. I have (and love) his books He Took a Cab (NYQ Books, 2011) and Drought Resistant Strain (Interior Noise Press, 2010), and we have published his poems here at Escape Into Life. His recent chapbook, A Bag of Hands, is distributed through the Rattle Chapbook Prize series, and it’s another doozy, full of scary bluntness and raw human feeling.

The title poem is indeed about a bag of hands, “a black plastic bag” full of

          12 severed hands
          removed from their owners, for thievery, por ratero,

          and put in this bag, the kind of bag
          you put beer in from Oxxo, filled with ice

          but no ice for these hands, rancid, rotting
          in the heat, flies, dried blood.

So now you know.

This poem also contains his ars poetica, in a way, and a quiet argument against exploitation. People tell him to “take that bag // of hands and craft a novel around it, make / money,” but he won’t. He writes the poem instead, and we know that won’t make him any money off other people’s suffering, but he doesn’t want blood money, anyway.

          I think of that Sherwood Anderson story I read long ago

          about the man whose hands got him into trouble
          when he only wanted to love. That’s when

          I wanted to be a writer. So many things to do
          with these guilty hands, but writing seemed

          a good thing.

It is a good thing, a good choice. People do cruel things in Schneider’s poems and often, apparently, in his cab. A woman in his cab in the poem “Consequences” seems to think it is OK that

          Fifty-four people have died
          in the last month
          trying to cross the border
          into Arizona.

Her boyfriend reads her the information from the newspaper, and she says, “Well, I’m glad.”

          The man looks at her with something
          that is almost horror,
          almost human.

The quiet power in Schneider’s simplicity is devastating. “They’re breaking the law, / she says. / There are consequences.” This poem ends with more consequences; it doesn’t let up, not even at the Stop sign.

There are sweet poems here, too, expressing his love for his wife. (You can read “Loco for Love” in a link below!) Funny moments, like the dueling yawns in “Driving Josie to McDonald’s to Work the Breakfast Shift, 3:45 a.m.” There is grief, no less profound for being imagined, anticipated; there is misunderstanding. From “Cartas de Amor”:

          Best not to imagine your love dead
          or to put literature ahead of life.
          Best not to write certain things down

          or if you do
          burn them
          or hide them
          for some cold dark day.

These poems work in their own context, created by their details and their arrangement in the chapbook. They work another way in the context of American culture and current events in 2018, immigration woes, environmental worries. I read “Family Tree” with great interest, having just read The Overstory, by Richard Powers, a novel about trees, where activists gather to defend them. Here, the characters find that inexplicable, likening a great mesquite tree to “a man grown so fat / he can’t get out of bed,” while the poem also lays out exactly what is needed:

          It’s so big it would have died long ago
          fallen from its own weight
          and rotted into the ground
          if people hadn’t built a support system
          of ropes and chains and rubber hoses and hammocks
          and crutches to hold up the biggest
          most cumbersome branches.

But Schneider is all too aware that we don’t provide a similar support system for all of our fellow humans. In “Chasing the Green Card,” he and his wife have to explain themselves to a “little mousy government official” who doesn’t care about them or pronounce their names correctly. And there will be consequences:

          …if you can’t properly define
          what it means for two human beings
          to need each other, he will
          tear your life apart.

Don’t let this happen.

Mather Schneider at EIL

“Loco for Love” from A Bag of Hands in Men in Love at EIL

“Halloween Wind” in Poetry of Fear at EIL 

A Bag of Hands at Rattle 

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