Three Hands None

Three Hands None by Denise Bergman, Black Lawrence Press, $16.95.

“told again and again the story becomes its own citation”

Sadly, many of us must learn to piece together our lives after serious trauma. Some mistakenly believe that the term “trauma” should only be used when discussing how events like wars, school shootings, or natural disasters affect us. But this term can also be applied to situations like an abusive parent or an alcoholic spouse. Humans face many different kinds of trauma and unfortunately some have to cope with it for their entire lives. In her new book, Three Hands None, Denise Bergman maps trauma and its effects with raw emotional honesty.

She does this partly through the structure of the poems and their syntax. The first thing one notices about these poems is their lack of punctuation and capital letters. One example is, “go to her though she doesn’t call ask beg or hint.” The lack of commas and capital letters in lines like these give the poems a raw aesthetic, as if we were reading a discarded journal left at a crime scene. This allows us to feel remarkably close to the narrator and the traumatic event the book is centered around. It also adds an element of psychological chaos to the poems, inviting us in to hear the gasps of a tormented soul. These gasps sometimes take the form of a unique syntax in lines like, “mug shots again was it this one that” and “I’ve told this story a thousand times it is me telling it me it is about me me I write my and I cry.” I seek only to praise when I state that there is something primitive about lines like these. What I mean is that they feel primordial, as if Bergman was reaching back to the ancient roots of human pain.

Three Hands None is comprised of nine sections and none of the poems in these sections have titles. In addition, the section titles can only be found in the table of contents. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, this adds to the raw aesthetic of the work. It definitely reads more like a discovered journal this way. On the other hand, it would have been nice to have a few more guideposts as I made my way through the book. This artistic choice aside, each section of the book is firmly comprised of poems that successfully reinforce its themes, thoughts, and images.

The most vivid of these is the traumatic event itself, a violent sexual assault on a young woman. Bergman writes about it with candid imagery in lines like, “his hands stuttered filth in the eloquent language of power” and “his rasping voice on his whitewater breath crashed against my face.” These lines are haunting and Bergman deserves credit for having the courage to face so much pain. As many can tell you, trauma doesn’t just end after the event itself is over. There is an entire landscape one must navigate, and Bergman maps it throughout the book. There is the burden of “an unwieldy bag of bones” created by the assault. There is also the constant fear, “he knows who I am/each man I pass on the way to work/knows who I am.” In Three Hands None, Bergman has braved some of the darkest areas of the human psyche.

In one of the final sections of the book, the narrator sets out to rediscover herself. She must, “go to her where alone she waited for no one.” As a victim of assault, the narrator’s true self has been taken from her. And since the perpetrator of the assault broke into her dwelling place, she must also rediscover her sense of home. In part, she rediscovers both through empathy with others. This provides a hopeful tone to the last pages of the book, that even in our most solitary pain there is still room for connection.


Benjamin Schmitt is the Best Book Award and Pushcart nominated author of three books, most recentlySoundtrack to a Fleeting Masculinity. His poems have appeared in the Antioch Review, Hobart, Worcester Review, Columbia Review, Roanoke Review, and elsewhere. A co-founder of Pacifica Writers’ Workshop, he has also written articles for The Seattle Times and At The Inkwell. He lives in Seattle with his wife and children.

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