Discussing masculinity, love, and death against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, Chris Bailey’s What Your Hands Have Done is easily condensed into one word: salty. One gets the impression that each of Bailey’s manuscripts were stained with a sweat composed of salt water and internalized tears, summoned by the labour of living. From coast children beginning life “with a sureness” not shared by those “raised from the earth,” to an experienced fisherman ending his life with “backline around his neck,” Bailey examines East Coast life from adolescence to expiry in a gritty look at its unexplored corners.
Although the book is split into three sections, with two sets of various poems bracketing one longer piece at the text’s centre, the reader would struggle to close the book without understanding the themes at its core as transcending their physical division. While the poems in this collection are rooted in East Coast life, their themes reveal themselves in a darker universality that concerns common patterns of masculine existence. What Your Hands Have Done interrogates conventional notions of masculinity in a culture that upholds those notions more than most, resulting in a unique perspective that prompts a contemplative reading. In “Have a Cookie,” for example, Bailey presents a conversation about a father’s cancer diagnosis with his son, foregrounding the insufficiency of male discussion in addressing personal matters, represented effectively by the opening line: “The way your father tells you is simple”.
Many negotiations with mortality are made across this collection, conceptualizing the relationship between manhood and existence. While there may be an urge to label Bailey’s work as concerned with death, it is perhaps more appropriately termed meditative on the process of dying, as it is less concerned with what is lost in death than it is with what leads up to that moment of loss. The book’s central section, aptly titled “A Slow Process,” is an exemplary exploration of the moments leading up to the realization of mortality, as the speaker grapples with the nearness of his grandmother’s death while simultaneously attempting to locate themselves within an expansive familial structure.
Despite Bailey’s characterization of life as defined largely by resistance to one’s happiness – exhibited by these prolonged examinations of dying – he suggests that rising to the challenges posed by darker moments results in a positivity, though brief, that cannot be taken for granted. In “This Guy,” Bailey glorifies explorations of grimness, writing that he looks up to the poem’s subject because he “lost a father / and saw the dark for what it was, then came back” ready to be a father himself, optimistically recalling the instant in which he held his child for the first time. This moment is characterized as a softer representation of manhood by the speaker, as Bailey subtly unpacks the rigidity of masculinity with the poem’s subject here transitioning from wearing “shoes he wasn’t sure he’d grow into” to appearing as if “those shoes were meant for him”.
Bailey gestures at much more than these substantial themes of masculinity and dying within the limited physical constraints of this collection. Lines and poems about drinking provide a break from meditations on mortality, and the poet also incorporates femininity into his commentary, glorifying female figures that fill the frequently empty spaces left by societal adaptations of conventional notions of masculinity. This elevation is apparent in “She Was There,” as Bailey writes, “She was there, cooked for you. Helped clean / the mess you’d become from decades / spent on your father’s ocean hauling lobsters,” foregrounding the significance of feminine figures in cleaning up the toxic residue of adopted masculine traditions and helping male figures to live through them. Love also strides from page to page, appearing more obviously in the form of love poems such as “Autumn Evening” and “Pillow Talk,” as well as making more subtle cameos in pieces like “When It Rains”.
Bailey employs simple language appropriately in the text, inviting the reader to explore the full complexity of his subject matter in the unobstructed way that one needs to in order to get everything one can out of it. The poems are filled with details that invite exploration and examination as, while the reader should not overlook their first impressions of Bailey’s work, there is something to be said for what one finds in rereading this collection. What Your Hands Have Done is a brilliantly multifaceted debut from Bailey that causes its reader to rethink masculinity’s toxic nature and the ways in which it connects to the darker moments of existence. This is an incredible book, and it merits much more than a simple readthrough.
A.W. French is a writer from North Vancouver, British Columbia, currently pursuing an MA in English Literature at the University of British Columbia, where they focus their studies on Canadian poetry. In addition to their academic work, French's poetry has been published in a number of creative writing journals across Canada, America, and the UK.