Elena Wilkinson’s poem “After the Loss of a Limb” is rattling. It’s the type of storytelling that quietly extinguishes its light on you, leaving you sitting in sudden, uncomfortable darkness.
Not unlike a Hitchcock film, where ordinary objects become a source of increasing tension. Not unlike Roald Dahl’s Omnibus: Perfect Bedtime Stories for Sleepless Nights, a collection of macabre and unsettling stories that easily could be rated R.
Wilkinson’s poem is not merely a goodbye. It is a farewell and an elegy.
Most of us would shudder at the thought of giving, receiving, and preserving a severed limb. But by the poem’s end, we see that the hand is anything real and raw that only we can give to another. The amputation is an act for someone you’d do almost anything for, though it may be the last thing you ever give to them.
The speaker in the poem doesn’t explain “why the operation was necessary” or describe any pain; apparently the history is familiar and perhaps the physical pain is unworthy of mention compared to emotional pain mutely experienced. This is, evidently, a note to someone with whom the speaker in the poem has had an intimate and unhappy past.
But is the “nice box” to honor the hand, or is it to please the recipient? Is the hand a burden of guilt and obligation (“You must be considerate”), or is it an ultimate sacrifice? (The now one-handed speaker cannot deliver another such thing.) Are the care instructions because the recipient has shown irresponsible behavior in the past and cannot be trusted to handle this?
Does it matter? Not much. The time for accusations, arguments, and reconciliation is clearly past.
With her note, the giver sends a final gesture of hope, that this part of her—this part of their story—be cared for and treated with respect. The request is simple and businesslike; she never asks for it to be loved.
But, we know, realistically the thing cannot be maintained with dignity. It is decaying, disintegrating already; it lacks integrity. We know it must be disposed of, and with it, any hope for reunion. After all, the hand cannot be reconnected to its body anymore, and the recipient can neither return it nor practically keep it—the recipient has no choice but to reject it, along with the symbolism it carries.
Here, the hand, often employed as a synecdoche in marital and professional contexts, works as a way to force someone else’s hand to let go of a much larger whole. To manipulate them into disengaging first.
Or, as this hand can now function in no other way, and came at great cost to the giver, in a more generous reading it is a gift—giving someone a helping hand. A helping hand in letting go of something irrevocably broken. Manual and emotional labor.
Either way, we see this for what it is: a gentle, permanent severance. A difficult goodbye, painstakingly wrapped in a nice box…in hopes of making it finally presentable, in hopes of making it finally respected, in hopes of making it easier to accept finally.