Before the plague I never knew my hands.
The need to purify the human touch
has turned my vision inward, but though much
is taken; much remains—in human hands,
the same, yet not the same. The bleak demands,
that we remain impersonal, in such
a time, to save the personal—we can clutch
and grasp at it, but no one understands.

We wash but still we cannot kiss, embrace,
shake hands, or even show that we are friends,
although what has been true remains as true.

We wash, but there’s this thing we can’t replace
in blushing nailbeds, quirky wrinkles, bends—
just look. Right here. I hold them out to you.



Daniel Kemper is a systems engineer living in California.

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17 Responses

    • Daniel Kemper

      Apologies: let me take this first thread to apologize to all for being so late in reply: CA fires, the plague, harvest season at work… boom and bust.

      Thank you, Joe, for your praise and apt encapsulation.

  1. Sally Cook

    Congratulations on this very sensitive, subtle, self-analytic poem. To date, this poem of yours and the baseball poem by Joe Tessitore are the two best plague poems I’ve seen. No matter how good you think you are, you are better than you think.

    • Leo Zoutewelle

      I do not wish to think of plague poems as a category, but Sally’s last sentence is a very poignant statement that befits those two poems beautifully!

      • Daniel Kemper

        What a time it is to have such a category as “plague poems”! Thank you for your praise, Leo.

    • Peter Hartley

      Yes, a fine little poem, this, and the ABBAABBA rhyme scheme for the octet must have been a lot easier in Petrarch’s Italian than it is for we English speakers today. No matter how well he thinks he thinks, his thinking, we think, is better than he thinks he thinks. Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum.

      • Daniel Kemper

        Hi Peter,
        It feels good to have the labor as well as the work praised: thank you. I hope I can continue to earn such praise.

    • Daniel Kemper

      Sally, thank you. I hope my next poems can prove you right.

      [got a little mixed up on reply threads]

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    This is a very carefully crafted and lovely sonnet, on how human intimacy can survive even the most brutally totalitarian restrictions put in place by bureaucrats.. It reminds me of something that Malcolm Muggeridge once said: “You can pave over the entire planet in asphalt and concrete, and yet somewhere a crack will appear from which a flower blossoms.”

    An ABBA rhyme in a quatrain is always tricky to pull off with success. Kemper does it here, and gives the quatrains in his octet the identical rhymes without making the attempt seem forced or rhyme-driven. This is really good work.

    • Daniel Kemper

      I’m humbled by your considered and considerable praise. On the identical rhymes, a bit of meta-textual fun there as well “the same, yet not the same. ” 😉
      Incredibly happy you enjoyed it. Thank you–

  3. Margaret Coats

    As others have rightly praised the form of this fine sonnet, I’ll continue by saying that it uses sonnet structure and scope in a very nearly perfect development of feeling. You demand attention with a riddle sentence as first line. This requires some self-analysis for a few more lines, but you open up the thought to “we” in line 7 and to “no one” (commenting on everyone) in line 8, where you show that attempted analysis is, in fact, unsuccessful. And during this process, the two quatrains each contribute different but essential effects.
    “We,” and a lonely sense of failure, dominate the sestet, until you arrive at the urgent goal of attempted communication between “I” and “you” in the final half-line sentence. Those last words cry out for profound Ignatian meditation on the hands of the person standing next to me in the scene you have so well imagined.

    • Daniel Kemper

      Margaret, I’m not sure what to say. I’m blown away. Your praise and evocative analytical detail– I appreciate them more, maybe, than I can say well. Thank you.

  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Daniel, I love this poem. It says everything about taking away the human touch with subtlety, sensitivity and beauty. The closing line is heart-touchingly perfect. Thank you.

    • Daniel Kemper

      Susan, I feel very warmed to have touched you. Your thoughts touch me in return. Poetry pushes back against the time of plague.

  5. Monty

    This is a quality piece, Dan, in both concept and presentation. It’s always pleasing when a poem draws our attention to the less obvious facets/consequences of a given situation – in this case the intrusive impact the virus has had on our natural association with our own hands. And I doubt if you could’ve come up with a more relevant and poignant closing line; with the image it evokes of one holding out their hands . . asking, pleading even, for the simple act of human contact. Very touching (if you’ll excuse the pun).

    I have to say there’s one aspect of your piece which gently rattled my cage: your assertion that “we cannot . . even show that we are friends”. Despite all the restrictions currently incumbent upon us, surely none of them can prevent two humans showing – in one way or another – that they’re friends. Is it not the case that only death could prevent such an act?

    • Daniel Kemper

      Thank you very much for your compliments and strong feelings. You are right. It is true that we are human beings will find from some ineffable source, a means of contact, of expression. Consider, whether it is personally enjoy it or not, all of the fashion and creativity that have come to decorate facemasks! 🙂 My expression “cannot” was certainly over the top as a gesture for the restrictions that inhibit us. Thank you again for engaging the poem and engaging me.


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