Gillihan’s The New Hand

In July of 2004, Sean Gillihan posted this comment to my web site.


I’ve been enjoying the reading on your blog, and look forward to the next title. Thanks for sharing all the hard work.

I stumbled across the page a couple weeks back when I googled “charleswright” What a wonderful reading of his work you provided.

I’ve taken the liberty of pasting a long poem of my own, for your pleasure. It’s the title piece from my first book, The New Hand. At the time, the asian translations of Hamill and Merwin were at the top of my list of influences.

Thanks again,


I’m not sure I read the entire poem that he posted that day, but I read enough to know I wanted to read the whole book and added it to my overly-long Amazon Wish List, a list I’ll never exhaust. That might seem like an inexcusable length of time to wait, but considering that I’ve still got unread poetry books that I read while an undergraduate in college, it’s relatively fast.

I finally finished reading it while in Colorado, perhaps appropriately because climate-wise Colorado and Eastern Oregon seem quite similar to me. My favorite poem in Sean Gillihan’s The New Hand is the title poem he posted that day perhaps because of the strong Asian influence, particularly the Tanka-like five line structure.

I suspect I like the title poem even more now than I would have when Sean posted it because of my increased interest in birding, though birds only play a peripheral part in his poetry:

Bluebirds and kestrels, a pair of red-tails breeding
on the telephone pole at the end of the lane. Birds everywhere.
I watch a thick covey of quail run wildly into the brush.
A barn owl calls from the hayloft and makes me wish
I could speak owl, or, on a better day, with the voice of a mouse.

It’s really the immediacy, the presentness of this poem that I like. These are some of the things that I’ve driven by most of my life but have recently started to notice. The irony, and truth, in the last line skillfully combines modernism and Taoist ideals.

I can easily identify with:

Never much of a farmer, I’m the guy
who stops the tractor to watch blackbirds
bouncing from the ditch while I tow a string of gulls.
Wave when you drive past and I’ll wave back.
I stopped again to write this poem.

As much backyard farming as I’ve done in my life, I’ve never done it for a living, or else I would have starved to death. I’m more than willing to share my time and my crops with local wildlife. I grow crops because it ties me to the seasons and to the earth in ways nothing else ever has.

I even love the way this extended poem ends,

Swinging hay hooks into a firm bale, my shoulders
swell to the load. Every inch of my skin crawls,
itching with sweat and hay dust. I’m willing to trade it all
for a glass of cool water, and a nap in the shade of the porch.
Thirty-five, and I’m trying to become an old dog.

perhaps because I feel like I’ve become that “old dog.”

This is actually a rather short book of poems, just 52 pages, so I won’t go much beyond what I’ve already discussed here, but can’t resist giving you a taste of the other poems in the book with this one from near the end:


If you are lost, you’ll find
there’s a map home
in the palm of your hand.
Trace the route with your finger
You could tip it toward someone
a friend.

Better still, give it to them.
Let them hold it.
Longing, a well-worn shortcut.

Somehow this poem reminded me of a David Wagoner poem I read long ago while an undergraduate, called “A Place to Stand.” I suspect all poems help us to understand how we have lost our way, while suggesting how we might find our way back to our deeper selves. The New Hand establishes a sense of place in a way few poetry books do.

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