Monday, April 08, 2019



Review by Lee Varon

Denise Bergman’s new book of poetry “Three Hands None” is a stunning collection. The incident at the heart of the book is the assault of the narrator by a stranger who breaks into her apartment. She describes: “a twenty-year old woman alone in a tiny speck of bed/ deep inside sleep wakes up to a man with a knife at her throat.”

The “three hands” in the title refers to the confusion and disorientation the narrator feels as she attempts to recount her horrific ordeal: “his three hands one on my mouth one with his knife one/ holding the flashlight so close my eyes were on fire.

She feels as if her attacker has three hands to her “none” since she feels paralyzed in the moment of the attack— “this is what powerless is.”

The ten poems of the book are divided by long dashes enclosed in brackets which give the reader a pause between each of the connected poems. The often long lines without capitalization create a strong forward momentum—I couldn’t put the book down.

The story moves from the night the narrator is assaulted to her attempt to recognize her assailant from the many mug shots she is shown by the authorities—“photos of men was it this one that I tell them that I hadn’t seen his face.” In the aftermath of the assault the narrator is haunted by the feeling that threat is pervasive: “he knows who I am/ each man I pass on my way to work/ knows who I am.” He could be anywhere with his “surveillant camera” watching her, ready to strike again. And apart from the daily way in which the attack intrudes in every aspect of her life is the overarching question so many survivors ask: “why me/who was I to him…”

Like all survivors, the narrator’s being is shaken to its very core. The attack has stripped her of her sense of self and safety: “he he he gleaned me. what’s left are leafless stalks too thin to/ catch a wind.”

Bergman keenly depicts the disconnection and confusion which disrupts everything in the narrator’s world: “she sleeps I sleep for weeks a waking sleep though I can’t sleep/ can’t fall or stay asleep.”

Yet there is still a kernel of herself that endures and pulls her through the nightmare she is experiencing. It is midway through the book that: “on hands and knees I retrieve the kernel lock it in my fist.” There is a glimmer of reawakening and yet the narrator keeps circling back to the assault even as she moves forward.

It will take decades in which “speech was a pageless lexicon” before she is able to write about her experience. Some people don’t understand and wonder why she chooses to write about her ordeal after so many decades. Her answer to them rings out with conviction and clarity: “I say to sleep” and then, “to find the me back then.”

In this volume of striking poems the narrator finds “the me” that was stripped from her as a young woman and we as her readers are in awe of her courage and gratified by her incremental triumphs in regaining her selfhood.

In the final section of the book, the narrator broadens her view beyond her own experience to encompass the plight of all survivors of violence—both women and men. She connects with other survivors and encourages the reader to: “go to her though she doesn’t ask beg or hint” and also, “bring her a siren bring her a bell bullhorn megaphone/ microphone but know she will choose to whisper.”

In “Three Hands None” Bergman goes beyond a whisper to a full-throated, powerful, beautifully crafted work of art that will reverberate long after you have finished her book.