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Exploring the Backlist: Janice N. Harrington's THE HANDS OF STRANGERS

Hello readers! Join our team of interns as they explore over 40 years of our publication history and share their passion for some of their favorite titles from BOA Editions. In today's post, Nia T. contemplates how Janice N. Harrington makes visible how nursing home residents and their caretakers experience the end of life.

Confronting Mortality Through Poetry: Janice N. Harrington’s The Hands of Strangers

Hi everyone! I’m Nia, one of BOA’s summer interns this year. I’m currently on a gap year, learning more about the publishing world and exploring more poetry, as I plan to transfer to Howard University to follow in the footsteps of some of my favorite Black academics.

Being a Black woman obsessed with poetry, I always look for other Black female voices within the genre, and Janice N. Harrington’s The Hands of a Strangers was a wonderful and gut-wrenching read. It tackles the pain, love, and invisibility that comes with aging, and how our bodies are often signifiers of our worth—whether we like it or not. It reminds us all, that age and death are not fiction, and in fact, people like the ones in these poems do exist, and they are being simultaneously loved and mistreated within their final resting places.

In “Chart,” Harrington writes, “how to catalog an aging body?” And while reading, I had the same question. How does one categorize the almost-dead, or those left without family or friends? Harrington writes with such brutal honesty, that it seems that while writing this, she also experienced a sort of existential crisis with the question—how do we know we have amounted to anything once we reach the age of decay?

This collection poses questions about the erasure of lives once age hits and affects the body, and reminds us of the corporeal reality of life and the total disregard and abandonment others have for older people. For example, in “May Engles,” the poem stands as a portrait of a forgotten and abandoned woman:

May Engles died and she died of scurvy.
May Engles died and she died of sorrow.
May Engles died and she died like this, oh-oh, oh-oh.
May Engles died or maybe she didn’t

This forgotten woman is transformed by the speaker into her own memory in dedication of her, and others like her, left to decay and left to only hold her own memories with no one else to share or claim. May Engles is a woman, she is the words whispered into a lover’s ear, or used in a childhood playground game. She is everything but the human she died and lived as, and she is left alone. This is highly representative of the work as a whole, and it's crushing portraits like these throughout the book, that bring about that feeling of fear within the readers themselves. For me, I began to wonder how it would feel to be forgotten, what is the meaning of humanity and belonging, and, if at the end will all of that all be lost?

Harrington approaches these concepts of death and other crude experiences we fear as humans, without hesitation in this book. And with the largely omniscient speakers in the poems, it feels as if we, as the readers, are observing these harsh tales of the people within the nursing home, trembling, as we are confronted with the grotesque possibilities of the human body and the actions put upon it. One part of the book that particularly struck me with that feeling was the final stanza of “Molly.” It reads:

All the exquisite parts of her work—fingers,
palms, wrists, arms, shoulders—
intent on the motions of cleaning and drying,
the certainty that one day she too will lie waiting
in a county bed seeking compassion
from the hands of strangers.

The Hands of Strangers is reflective of the struggle one has grappling with their mortality, and the ways that age pushes a human into the shadows, to be silenced and immobilized. Harrington is able to get these themes across in such a cold and direct way that human impermanence is shoved into the reader’s face. One day we too, will leave things behind just to have them discarded and unnamed as in “Divider,” or left forgotten, like the subject in “Rot,” who had her own foot decaying off of her body “the Achilles’/ string…rotted through.”

There is something to say about a book like this that doesn’t just use body horror and the topic of death for shock value, but that grasps the deep feeling and fear that humans hold unconsciously about what happens on the way to death, and afterwards. Harrington doesn’t alleviate this fear, or worry, but she doesn’t elevate it either. Instead, we are put into this realm, surrounded by all different faceless people, and we hear and feel their stories as if they were our own.

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