Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Whosoever Holds This Hammer,”
by Dawn Manning

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

The poem is remarkably symmetrical, with five stanzas of five lines each (cinquains) for a total of 25 lines, a number whose square root is five. The metrical principle organizing these lines is syllabic; that is, the syllables are counted and follow a distinct pattern: 4, 8, 12, 8, and 4 syllables per line. The pattern makes a visual and sonic chiasmus, with the longest most central line bounded on both sides by shorter lines of 8, then 12 syllables. That is, short lines build in length to culminate with the longest in the middle of the stanza, then the lines get progressively shorter until we are back where we began with a four-syllable line. Structurally, this resembles a Freytag Pyramid, the device used to describe the building and release tension in most fiction. The shape it makes on the page reminds me of a bellows—apt for this point about metalworking—or a breath. Geometrically, the shape resembles a diamond or some other faceted gemstone. In a great example of form serving meaning, the lines are sculpted, hammered, and forged into a precise form, just as the speaker forges and works the strip of copper in the poem.

The sound of “Hammer” read aloud is remarkable, and I hope you will try it for yourself, feeling those lines expand and contract. It’s rich with internal repetitions of sound that meld its lines and stanzas. One source of sound repetition is initial consonance, as in “sparkling snowscape” (line 4) and “flat and featureless” in line 22. But where the poem really sings is in internal rhyme and assonance, sonic echoes between adjacent or proximate words within and across lines. Line 2 near-rhymes “teeth” with “deep” and in line 3, “silver” with “gilding.” Line 7 ups the ante, repeating –n  nasals of “beyond,” “thinning,” and “line,” picked up again in “electronic” and “lanes” in line 8. Long -ee sounds resonate in “uneven / beads of traffic” in lines 9-10. “Strip” slant-rhymes with the first syllable of  “copper” in line 14, and the next two lines set up echoes of –s sounds (“chase,” “force,” and “itself”), heard again in the next stanza’s “nautilus,” “molecules,” “faster,” “brass,” “master,” and “sky’s.” “Faster” and “master” (lines 18-19) are full rhymes, like “low snow” in line 21. “Plain,” “raise,” and “range” repeat the long -a sound in lines 23-24, and the tour de force happens, as it should, in the last line’s triumphant triple rhyme, “coin my own sun.” These patterned resonances held within the carefully worked syllabic framework are like a faceted jewel enclosed by a metal bezel, a sound-gem to support and burnish the meaning of the poem.

The dramatic situation is of a first-person speaker (“I”) indoors on a gloomy day working at jewelry-making. By means of the accrual of detail we come to understand the process of metalworking, able to witness the sequence of steps used to hammer copper strips into a desired shape. This precision, augmented by vocabulary from the field of metalsmithing, draws us into what the speaker is doing and also establishes her credentials. “Chase the hammer” and even those “beads” of traffic contribute to the authenticity of the voice; we trust that the person writing the poem has actually held such a hammer and shaped the copper in just this way. Absorbed by the description of what is happening to the metal, it comes as a surprise to us—as to the speaker, I am guessing, as well—to look up and notice the sky outside. In a wonderful example of the objective correlative, the sky looks to the speaker, and us, like its own species of metal, “flat and featureless as nickel.” The conceit of equating outer landscape with what is going on inside the room (and in the psyche of the speaker) is extended in the last stanza. Here, what the speaker is raising up on the metal becomes a range of mountains, and her action in creating becomes something that can “light a torch” against the dull day, allowing her, in the wonderful phrase that closes the poem, to “coin my own sun.”

The process of creating illuminates the speaker from within, and “Hammer” can be read as an ars poetica in which the author expresses her feelings about the act of creation, a sort of “why-I-write” poem. Read this way, we learn that the speaker is serious about her art (gets up before sunrise to work) and is consumed by it to the point where form flows organically from function and the thing she is creating comes to resemble (sonically and on the page) the vision in her mind. In this way, the poem affirms the value and power of craft and its mastery, and asserts that making art is a kind of world-building that allows the artist to create her own potent reality.

Violence in many of the poem’s images call to mind the action of a smithy or forge—things are “struck” and “force[d]” by a hammer, and the power transmutes them into something else. “Chase” (used twice) offers interesting punning possibilities; we think of pursuit, but also of the  metallurgical term for the decorative embellishment of metal like engraving or embossing. Art, whether writing or jewelry-making, is the pursuit of an ideal. But you can also read the “I chase my hammer across the plain, raise up bright / mountains by the range” literally, envisioning the speaker as a mythic hero like Thor, pursuing her magic hammer across an actual plain and in the process raising up mountains to forge her own creation story.

The title is from the inscription on Thor’s hammer in the Marvel comic universe: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” Thor’s hammer Mjöllnir  (“Lightning”) is a terrible weapon, but one that is also used for hallowing, for blessing things like weddings. By the end of the poem the speaker wholly identifies with Thor, capable of destruction as well as creation and blessing, and the poem ends in a place of tremendous raw power and confidence with her joyfully striking the flat glowing disc of her “own sun.” What a wonderful affirmation of the act of creativity!

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