Kate Schapira counsels the population of Providence, Rhode Island, about the climate change killing our planet; therefore, I find it fitting that Handbook For Hands That Alter As We Hold Them Out exalts a being that could thrive in an expired world, “something living off light and death, not life”— the fungus.
The speaker of “Fruiting bodies” advises us to feed decomposers, and frets when she finds that she doesn’t know how to herself: “Not knowing what would grow on a body / how can I turn into food? / Where’s my enzyme, my cover of night?” Whether they are consuming or being consumed, Schapira acknowledges that humans have the option of communion; they are tasked with either “eat[ing] the bread, or us[ing] it to invite mold, insects, and animals into [their lives], where they belong.” She packages our own organs as food sources, challenging us to either “leave [our] heart or swallow it again.” Perhaps Schapira idealizes a human race that upends the western great chain of being, accepting its own destruction and “turn[ing] wildly to greenery and invertebrates…beg[ing] them to outlive us.”
Schapira often subjugates the humans living in her collection. Their primary weakness is that unlike “mushrooms,” “slime mold,” and “cloud[s] of spores that spoon our faces,” humans cannot puncture the barrier between death and life. Schapira highlights this impenetrability with the motif of layers, coverings, and casings. In the midst of “(revolution),” “tarp constructions and rain-draped people” are essentially ineffective, “blunt at the base.” Wrappings smother us for punishment; the speaker “failed and it fit / [her] like a hollow twin.” Friction sears us as we struggle against our sheaths, “pulling the flesh self against itself.” This collection’s infrequent references to misogyny sometimes feel random, but Schapira integrates them with the concept of envelopment in “New beauty,” the ultimate caricature of phallocentrism: “New beauty is made of erectile tissue / made to bunch and wear out under the bridge / where pigeons live, loose-feathered and odorous.”
We can’t successfully grow additional appendages on such coverings. Rot can spread over a bathroom as a “particle- / board,” projecting “one fungus [that] looks like a small, slender penis. / Gray head and pink shaft.” But the eviscerating “Women with extra heads” illustrates that human attempts at such protuberance are futile. We end up just as helpless as we were before we sprouted an additional head: even though our heads are our most sophisticated body parts, the women’s extraneous heads can only talk by passively having “speech take place [as] action and blinking, smacking, their tongues fold[ing] up like gum.”
As per the title, single-headed humans share this lack of agency: we hold our hands out in the expectation of alms. “The true self, / the node” does not seek passion (or go “stupidly questing,” a concept Schapira reiterates); it “waits for love.” Unlike fungi, we are subject to the life and death binary. Schapira’s speaker is capable of mimicking spores, however, with self-dispersal. In “People checking email beneath winged ladies and normal horses,” the speaker is able to disintegrate so her every “mote-me” floats; that is, until she becomes “studded with people whose / planning pins [her] to the future / for further adaptation.”
This passiveness corresponds to the irony that even though this collection asserts that it is a handbook, none of its speakers have definitive answers, not even the dead. Bridging the distinct demarcation between the realms of life and the afterlife, Schapira footnotes the poems in the book’s first section with italicized instructions from the dead. The instructions almost always contrast the preceding words of the living in terms of typography and line length. They describe practices very reminiscent of the (Soma)tic Exercises of CAConrad (to whom Schapira dedicates the piece “The border farrows”). For instance, the dead’s command to “put [a] pebble in your mouth and say the words you wish you’d said” instantly brought me back to his ritual of tasting a penny and orange juice and writing about poverty and love. Unlike the speaker of Conrad’s rite, Schapira’s dead don’t always commit to their ceremonials, contradicting themselves in “IX”:
No, tear your clothes for bandages.
Think of everything that might happen.
No, throw consequence to the four winds.
The title presents the collection as a manual specifically for hands that are transforming. When we hold them out, our hands are eroded by the elements, and one that Schapira centers on (in accordance with her mortality theme) is time. The speaker of “The idea of key” calls herself “Old Me.” In “VII,” living humans identify as “nodes of wrinkles” and “sweet future corpses.” This self-deprecating humor peaks when the speaker of “Public meat notebook” admits, “Even I / old meat as I am, can’t help smiling.”
Having just read The Lice by W.S. Merwin, this collection tempts me to juxtapose Schapira with Merwin: both are environmentalists, both speak of the dead, both slice the body open. But while Merwin’s synecdoche defines the dead by their “open eyes” that “rain falls into…again and again with its pointless sound,” Schapira’s pokes at her speaker as smiling old meat. Her collection’s charmingly idiosyncratic population of speakers and symbols nuances its dark subject (a speaker taunts, “I will rot your crotch!” Witches, dogs, and robots abound!). While both The Lice and Handbook For Hands That Alter As We Hold Them Out dwell in the deathly, Schapira’s book vivifies it as a danse macabre.
Katie Hibner is a confetti canon from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming inBone Bouquet, glitterMOB, inter|rupture, Modern Poetry Quarterly Review, and Word for/Word. Katie has also been a reader for Salamander and Sixth Finch.