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Last Updated on August 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 327

The Significance of Simple Gestures

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The narrator of the poem is moved, all of a sudden, to hug her companion, and, to her, it feels like something cosmic and huge; she even compares it to a shooting star. She continues to hold on to her companion even after the hug itself seems to be finished. When the speaker hugs the homeless man, something similar happens. During the hug, she feels that they could already be "eternal," as though something deeply significant, again, is happening. Even though she knows one person intimately and she does not know the other person at all, both of individuals seem to present equal opportunities for meaningful connection.

The Selfishness of Love

The speaker is surprised when her companion so easily agrees to sharing her and her hugs with someone else. She thought that her companion would react jealously and certainly "tell [the man] how it is"—that she belongs to them and only them. She believes that real love makes a person feel that their beloved is meant for them only. Lovers hold on to this feeling, she thinks, so when her companion is quick to agree that she can hug the homeless man, the speaker begins to questions whether her companion actually loves her.

The Transcendent Power of Meaningful Connection

In the final stanza, the speaker says that when she and the homeless man eventually break off their hug, the button on his coat will have left an "imprint of a planet" on her cheek. This suggests that she will be affected by this hug in many ways after it is finished. Physically, yes, she will have a small circular mark on her cheek, but that will fade quickly. However, given the earlier references to stars and eternity in relation to hugs, this mark also implies a sort of cosmic significance (leaving a "planet" on her cheek), suggesting that the speaker will be emotionally affected by simple gesture for a long time to come.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

Gallagher’s main focus in this poem is on expanding the borders of love. Instead of shunning the stranger, who “looks homeless because of how/ he needs,” both she and her lover let him into their world. The speaker of this poem grows beyond notions of a love “that nabs you with ‘for me/ only’ and holds on.” Love so constructed might as well wear manacles.

There are dangers, however, in developing a different perception or experience of love. In hugging the stranger, the speaker enters the unknown. The experience, for both her and the stranger, has positive effects: They hug “So truly, so tenderly/ [they] stop having arms.” They become as one and lose sense of the physical. This is the spiritual center of the poem, where the temporal becomes the eternal. On the negative side, the speaker suffers a loss of awareness: “I don’t know if/ my lover has walked away or what, or/ if the woman is still reading the poem.” Up to this point, the poem has been addressed to the lover. Mirroring her distance from him, the woman refers to him (“My lover”) rather than addressing him. She gains the transcendence of the hug but loses contact with her beloved. This is why she states in her last stanza, “Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.” The lover permitted the stranger to hug the woman, and the woman permitted herself to follow through on the hug. The stranger “give[s] it back so well I know he’s/ getting it.” The woman accepts the danger; it is worth it to achieve “a masterpiece of connection.” The speaker is a different person at the end of the poem, not so smug or so grounded in coupledom.

Willingly, the volume in which “The Hug” appears, explores different faces of love: father and daughter, mother and son, sister and sister, and a reader and the blind man to whom she reads. There are many possibilities for loving in this world. In its generosity of spirit and its openness to experience, “The Hug” is typical of Gallagher’s verse. The voice in the poem is natural, and yet what begins in the ordinary goes through a process of transcendent expansion and then reflection. What might appear wanton behavior in a restrictive culture comes across in this poem as deeply moral despite the surrounding houses, unmoved and unmoving. The stranger, essentially “homeless,” is embraced. Included rather than excluded from the lovers’ sphere, he leaves the mark of his own world on the woman’s cheek. In expanding the boundaries of her self, the poem’s speaker becomes more compassionate and humane. This poem’s impulses are central, therefore, to Gallagher’s main concerns throughout her work.