Poetry Moment: 'My Father’s Hands' by Harry Humes
Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Todd Davis is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona.
This episode’s poem is “My Father’s Hands” by Harry Humes.
Harry Humes was born in Girardville, Pennsylvania, in Schuylkill County. The geography of that place permeates his work with stories of his parents and siblings trying to scratch out a hardscrabble life. Humes spent his career teaching at Kutztown University and now lives in the countryside near Kutztown with his wife. He’s the author of 14 books of poetry, among them August Evening with Trumpet, Ridge Music, and Butterfly Effect, which was selected by Pattiann Rogers as a winner of the National Poetry Series. His poetry has won many awards, including the Devins Award, the Theodore Roethke Prize, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
The story of coal in Pennsylvania is complicated and complex, full of harm for the landscape and waterways, for the people who mined it and all who breathed it. The economy depended on it. As little as 20 years ago more than 50% of the electricity in the state was supplied by coalfired plants, and while natural gas has supplanted it, anyone who is stopped at a rail crossing today will see car after car filled with this black rock of prehistory.
Harry Humes spent his childhood in a coal mining town where his father was a miner. He writes about these experiences, the landscape and its people, with compassion and a painterly eye, trying to recreate its smells, the smoke from the fires, even the audible grief and suffering of those caught in the accidents that always accompany such work.
My Father’s Hands
They brought him home, sleeves still smoking
from the flash fire in his mine, our mother’s lips
a thin line of grief, Dr. Murray arriving
minutes later, peeling back skin from knuckles
and palms, greasing the wedding ring,
the Masonic ring with its red stone and diamond chip,
dropping it all to the floor, the injection
not helping my father at all, who groaned
and cursed the tunnels, the Welsh bosses.
He was home for months, his hands great wads
of cotton and tape that stank when we got too close,
trying not to let him know, trying not to imagine
what was under the bandages, that no longer fit anything,
all of us trying to avoid them the way we avoided
Skipper Todd who hiccoughed questions about our father
through a tube in his throat, none of us ever
saying more than our mother told us to say, never how
we’d suddenly awake and find them hovering over us,
never about how he’d sit for days in the coal cellar,
our mother feeding him down there, never about
the pounding that echoed up through the house
on Ash Alley, the house that began to fall down.
That was “My Father’s Hands” by Harry Humes.
Hear more episodes of Poetry Moment at WPSU.org/poetrymoment.
Music by Eric Ian Farmer.