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from Galerie de Difformité Gretchen E. Henderson

E x h i b i t     H

Finger painting.  Prints on walls in the Lascaux caves.  Veronica’s veil, an act of acheiropoietos (“not made by the hand of man”), seated near the right Hand of God.  Relics of St. Ninnidh in Ireland, St. Stephen I in Hungary.  Guidonian hands were solemnized, marked with syllables joint by joint for sight-singing, illuminated in manu-scripts.  Manu-factured.  Manu-mitted.  Mudras.  Hypocrites and Galen practiced palmistry, reading between lines and mountains—of Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, Mars, Luna, the Sun—the veritable cosmos, held in hands.  Wrapped in papyrus or gloves, cut into wood by Vesalius, cast and sculpted by Rodin, photographed by Lange, burned in Dresden, painted with henna, holding a stylus or spoon, living hand-to-mouth.  Skin and sinew conceal phalanges, metacarpals, knuckles.  On the other hand, get all hands on deck, in order not to be short-handed or reduced to shorthand, studied by graphologists, or perhaps, too heavy-handed to be written, held in hand, kept on hand, growing out of hand—

This is a language of clasping; hence, to lose hands denotes loss of possession, custody, charge, authority, power, disposal, agency, instrumentality—putting into other hands what wants to be held in your own: “terminal part of the arm beyond the wrist, consisting of the palm and five digits, forming the organ of prehension characteristic of man.”  (And woman—albeit by Roman law, that four-letter word conveyed the power of husband over wife.)  Left-handed, I have already joined hands with another (here we are) to change one definition that seems to rest in my hands, as I want a hand in something else, nothing underhanded, preferring the archaic meaning, “breath,” as articulated in A devoute medytacyon, in which Hampole wrote in 1340, “His nese oft droppes, his hand stynkes.”   Nothing like the sun, roses, snow, those eyes and cheeks and breasts; what of her hands?  That four-letter word, like a curse.  Unless substituted, striated, with meaning: a hand, a breath.  (Breathe.)

In printing, a conventionally extended forefinger drew attention to what came next, like a lion’s gaze in Luxor, or a colon prompting an actress in a play: Antigone, who dies by her own hand, or Medea, who cries: “Let no one deem me a poor weak woman who sits with folded hands, but of another mould.”  Made by lost wax, four-armed Shiva has another pair of hands waiting in the wings—unlike A. afarensis, A. africanus, H. sapiens—me. 

Thus, Into Thy Hands I commend my Spirit, amid this flourishing chorus of voices, and submit:

My hands.  Crippled, as they are.  As exhibit A, B, C, and the rest.  This is my Gallery, what I will display, cued by the hand that rocked the cradle too hard, breaking rules and a body, making it deformed, having to learn to breathe all over again.  To remobilize the spine, the neck, the arms and, last but not least, the hands.  And so I stand before you, trying to raise a conventionally extended forefinger to draw attention to what comes next:


E x h i b i t    P

Bodies on bodies, three breathe into one.  A love triangle, cloaked in black, exposes a red robe and mouth, roving.  Without resuscitation, theirs is a mastery of manipulation, a laying on of hands, under skirts, to hold and feign life.  As a triumvirate: the master directs the head, shoulders, right hand; an assistant controls the left; and a third manages legs and feet, shuddering to life, as a puppet rises in a Bunraku theater.  Hollow-headed, wigged, repainted with blinking eyes and clasping hands, Hisamatsu or Princess Yaegaki takes the stage in a cotton-stuffed robe over a belted kimono, coordinated by three consorts wearing the color of nothing, as a chanter and shamiesen (thick, thin, or medium-necked, laced with strings, to play heart-strings of listeners) invokes The New Ballad or The Dance of the Two Sambosas

The puppeteers hide under black cloaks, like a screen hosts shadows without impeding light, and flooded paddies become a liquid stage, and prosceniums conceal strings of marionettes, animating joints, lifted and propped, lifted then dropped, by unseen hands. 

There is a bit of God in all this—the metaphors of animation, overtones and undertones of the sensuality of transformation, of submission and conversion, of water and wine, like wood and cloth and touch turn into something that walks and winks.  It is a matter about matter, to determine whether and how (and if) this matters—at least, when evidenced in light of the antagonist of this story, who (or what) isn’t paired with a protagonist but with an agonist, in a controlled interplay of contraction and relaxation.  Contract; relax.  Breathe.  Reciprocity must be more than a physiological strategy, but cannot be assumed without observing (as Descartes did) muscles in an eye: “…[whose] movements within the orbits corresponds remarkably to that of the head of the humerus within the shoulder joint: the brain points the arm and finger as accurately as it points the eye….[T]he linear force is mechanically redirected (or translated into an angular force, or movement) through levers or pulleys.”

Pulling back, I try to gain leverage and better see this, the world as a stage, where (wo)men are merely players, and God (in one entry of the OED) is defined as “the occupants of the gallery.” 

Stay, I pray, if only to have a hand in this, to help me point the way, to move heads and hearts not with strings, but with hands that pretend to be wings.


E x h i b i t    U

Here comes the unclasping—there is no way to hold onto this.  It is a matter of resistance, then release.  Hands stroke strings, press keys, pull stops, as scores direct fingers forward through bars, movements, cadences, and cadenzas.  Musicians learn about touch through painstaking practice, sensing every inch of an instrument, to elicit its tonal center.  (True of a vocalist, too, whose instrument is the body, prone to the dissonance of disease, and warbles of woe.)  A cellist learns “through mastering movements like vibrato…the rocking motion of the left hand on a string which colours a note around its precise pitch; waves of sound spread out…like ripples from a pool into which one has thrown a stone.”   The arm is an orchestra, then, with fingers as instruments among instruments (thumb, palm, wrist, elbow, shoulder, the body)—“miracle of form and function,” capable of the greatest delicacy and danger.  

With abilities to play violins, pianos, guitars, flutes and harps, comes the capacity to pull triggers, throw punches, and detonate bombs.  Aristotle wrote: “A man can have many defences [sic] and always change them, and can have any weapon he pleases on any occasion.  For the hand is a claw and a hoof and a horn, and a spear and a sword, and any other instrument whatever.”   Avowing danger and debilitation, this thesis does not follow like Clockwork but re-views paleoanthopology and the evolution of Homo erectus, through which “this new hand reflected a modification…and brought with it the opportunity for a new class of situational knowledge based on as yet unexplored and undefined use of the hand.  This change by itself was nothing but a mutation until its utility gave it the status of an adaptation.”   Both instinctive and learned, manual manipulations have taught the mind through movements—faster, lighter, longer—to apprehend new thoughts. 

To learn to play an instrument, then to lose the ability to play, is like dying.

Lying apprehensio (at the root of grasping and cognizance), we are what we feel—touch & play—like What’s Bred in the Bone: “the hand speaks to the brain as surely as the brain speaks to the hand.”   There is a long history of communicative hands: holding a stylus, quill or pen, reckoning or gesturing through three-dimensional signs.  Ars memorativa involves metonymy and mnemonics, embodied by “the first instrument,” “the framer,” “the most noble and perfect organ” by (and about) which Helkiah Crooke wrote in 1615 : “we promise, we call, we dismisse, we threaten, we intreate, we abhorre, we feare, yea and by our hands we can aske a question.”  

What was the question?

By which we call another name: to learn and make music.  Rendering fingers and joints to measure melodic intervals, or to memorize: it is an ancient art.  Not physiognomic.  From West to East; played and sung.  Reverential; improvised; referential.  Stylized on paper.  Conducted or cheironomic.  Watch closely— hands may yet grace the air like birds.  Taking flight.  Imagine the fluttering: that singing.

Whatever the subject, memory often teaches with a dis-membered hand, drawn (or re-articulated: deformed) by an artist, as if that appendage (peripheral, yet central) could live apart from the body.   Or even regenerate when split in two, like a planarian.  Or imagine: a rebellion of Hands seceding from the Body, forming their own Kingdom.  To be, or not to be:

…a quandary, between beheading and begetting.  Like M.C. Escher drew a hand coming out of paper to draw another hand that drew the original hand.  Round and round.  We’re back where we started.

Which came first—hand or brain—or are they too innately tied to be unbound? 

Nodding to Crooke, my hands stay tied: “This progresse and insertion of these [flexor] muscles is an admirable and strange worke of Nature: for they are so severed, that the fingers in their motion might orderly follow one another, and each of them bend inward.”  With fingers figuratively severed, I ask: What is a hand?  Manu-mitting—master or slave, part of (yet apart from) the core of a body, closer than my shadow, as bound as busy.  Rubbing eyes, itching skin, brushing teeth, holding hands, clasping pens, hefting loads, touching hearts.  Traversed with lines of fate, and laced by nerves and flexors, hands work wonders within and without, enabling mani-pulations of meaning from matter.  Manu-ally, they point the way like Virgil or Beatrice, to litigious and lofty layers of our lives, to buried scenes and senses too essential to ignore. 



“Hand” and “Breath.” OED Online.  <http://>.

Frank R. Wilson.  The Hand.  New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1998.  88.

Richard Sennett, “Resistance.”  Granta: Music.  V. 76.

Like Aristotle wrote in De Anima: “the soul is like the hand; for the hand is the instrument of instruments.”  (Qtd. in Claire Richter Sherman.  Writing on Hands: Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.  7.)   “Miracle of form and function” refers to Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical studies of hands (qtd. on 105).

Ibid. 23.

Wilson, 59. 

Robertson Davies.  What’s Bred in the Bone.  New York: Penguin Books, 1986. 

Helkiah Crooke, Mikrokosmographia.  A Description of the Body of Man…Collected…Out of All the Best Authors of Anatomy.  London: Cotes and Sparke, 1615.  (Qtd. in Sherman, 25.)