Category Archives: Reviews

Hands 2007: Tom Raworth pointing the way

Hands 2007

In 2007 Raworth started a new project entitled Hands, in which he photographed or videoed his left hand every day pointing or gesturing towards something or someone. The result was two stop motion videos: one from the month of February and a longer one encompassing January until September. Hands reflects many of the ideas that recur in Raworth’s poetry; a series of images taken from Raworth’s point of view of his hand as it gestures towards various objects or scenery, the video is made by collaging these together to create a sustained and coherent form of individual expression. It brings Raworth’s world into focus in a way that is always mediated by the artist himself. We see what Raworth sees or, more precisely, we see what he selects for us. Moreover, with his hand outstretched gesturing and pointing, what we see first and foremost is Raworth himself; we see the life he leads, we see his family, his friends, his daily routines and the places he visits. Hands is a snap shot, a “rough cut”, of a larger project which extends throughout 2007 and possibly beyond. Hands is also illustrative of Raworth’s wider concern with documenting his life and interests through photographs, which can be seen in the countless images of books he is reading on his website and the nearly 13,000 photographs that have been uploaded on his public Flickr site since 2004. This overzealous act of documenting his life is an important fact to consider when reading Raworth’s poetry, because despite the speed and fragmentation of the form, the poetry is deeply rooted in his everyday lived experience.  

Hands offers readers a visual example of a number of the formal techniques Raworth uses throughout his poetry. The two minute and twelve second video consists of images and footage of Raworth’s left hand, pieced together in a stop-motion animation overlaid with the sound of John Dowland’s song “stay, time, awhile thy flying” from A Pilgrim Solace. Like many of Raworth’s poems, this video uses fragmented pieces collaged into a subjective lyric experience. By documenting precise moments from the perspective of an individual, over a period of time, this video further reinforces Raworth’s use of the ‘lyric I’. It quite literally gives the viewer a daily snapshot of Raworth’s life. We are shown a series of single moments from his perspective. However, this experience is still mediated by Raworth who, with his arm outstretched, is guiding our line of sight. We are both seeing through Raworth and guided by him. Moreover, the combination of stillness, created by the constant recurring image of Raworth’s hand, along with the predominantly still life scenes, and the speed at which these images are pieced together coupled with the instances of movement in the background, offers an experience similar to that of reading Raworth’s poetry. 

Hands echoes the speed and sharp shifts of attention that are common in Raworth’s poetry while still managing to create an overarching personal narrative. It contains a vast array of content as it flies through short moments of Raworth’s daily routines. Scenes range from mundane images such as a bathroom sink, books he is reading, recycling and gardening, to more personal moments such as family visits, grandchildren and a visit to a grave. A recurring theme comprises of images taken from and in different modes of transport. Images of cars, trains, bikes, canals, planes and boats add to the speed of the piece by showing Raworth on the move. The idea that Raworth is navigating the world around him is furthered by the number of different locations in the piece; at least four different countries are identifiable: England, America, Italy and Ireland. 

Another recurring theme of Hands is depictions of ageing and ill health. Throughout the video piece we witness Raworth holding his glasses, using a walking stick and visiting health clinics. These episodes, coupled with the flickering of time passing, allude to the idea of someone’s life flashing before their eyes as they die. The balance of stillness and movement, along with the fact that we only see Raworth once in a reflection, gives the pieces a ghostly aura. Raworth, aware of the fact that he is ageing, is reflecting on the life that he has built with his own hands through his career as a writer. The final image of a man with his young child implies that the world is no longer Raworth’s but instead belongs to the next generation, presumably, in this case, his son and his grandchild. It is not so much that Raworth wants us to remember him, more that he is trying to imprint these memories in his mind, safely saved in digital format. However, even if they are recorded, the moments themselves are gone, changed to nothing more than fading memories on a computer screen. The decision to use music by Dowland, who referred to himself in the punned title “Semper Dowland, semper dolens” (always Dowland, always doleful), echoes Raworth’s sense of loss. This idea of moments lost and fading memories help us to think about the speed of movement in Raworth’s poetry, where every attempt to describe an experience takes longer than the moment itself, meaning that no matter how fast it is recorded,  the experience is already gone.  

Hands is not a well-known piece of work, nor is it central to Raworth’s overall practice. However, its incorporation of ongoing concerns and themes in Raworth’s work allows readers another way in which to engage with Raworth’s work as a whole. Central to Hands, and much of Raworth’s poetry, is the tension between the experience of the individual subject – the author – and that of the reader/viewer. Raworth is there, but he is only there in part. Furthermore, the rapid fire of images offset by stillness is a feature of reading Raworth’s poetry. Every line demands our complete attention while pushing us forward onto the next line, leaving us feeling as if we have lost something important en route. Hands may not explain Raworth’s poetry, but it does provide another piece of the complex puzzle.

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