Five Variations on the Opposite of Any Handprint
The opposite of any handprint is the feeling of being touched. There is said to be an old trick with phone books, apocryphal favorite of pulp detectives: let the book drop from a good distance, and it will fall open to a frequently creased page—the page that lists the name and number of a person often searched for, often called. The phone book bears the imprint of that seeking, enshrines the drift of the finger down the page. The phone book “holds the place,” as we put it—it has its own capacity to lift, to carry, to touch.
Touch, in public instances of greeting and farewell, is often cited as a means of joining together or parting as equals. Modes of meeting or parting that do not involve touch, such as the curtsy or bow or the brief tipping of one’s hat, often connote mutual respect and honor; at the same time, they may be associated with differences in status and power. The citizen stands and removes his hat when the leader enters the room. The subject takes a knee before the king. But in the embrace or the clasping of hands, there is no ordained order. Instead, a coming together—the forging of a new form.
Franz Kafka, in an exchange with a young friend: The road from appearance to reality is often very hard and long, and many people make only very poor travelers. We must forgive them when they stagger against us as if against a brick wall.
W. S. Merwin: By the tree touching the tree I hear the tree / I walk with the tree / we talk without anything.
The opposite of any handprint is any negative handprint. Somewhere between the amoeba and the astronaut was the iteration of human who pressed her palm against a limestone formation and spit. Put-put. Prehistoric mark-makers chewed ochre and charcoal, mixed pigments with water in their mouths, then sprayed the new dye across and around the backs of their hands. When they lifted their hands from the walls of the caves, the dye formed a stencil around where their hands had been, preserving the shapes on the stone, in the colors of the stone. Put-put. Michel Lorblanchet: Human breath, the most profound expression of a human being, literally breathes life onto a cave wall. Historians in the intervening centuries have noted that negative handprints are most likely to occur in caves at strange acoustic junctures, where a drop in the ceiling or a sudden opening-up causes the human footfall to echo or truncate in an unusual way. From The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, offering the idea of sound to accompany a photograph: The sound of the soft repetitive spitting resembles the “put-put” noise of a motorboat far out at sea.
The conventional terms for the architectural features of a fingerprint: arches, loops, and whorls. The word “whorl” may also be used to denote the pulley of a spindle or the spiral of a shell, the wheel from which emerges the silken body. It derives from “whirl,” the action of circumvolution. The language of the pitching, heaving sea.
The language of the interior rush and pulsing of the body. Thoreau, from Walden: Many an irksome noise, go a long way off, is heard as music.… The record spins on the turntable, making of itself a whorl. On the A side, classical music, intended to be played during pregnancy, to herald the outside world to come. And on the B side, to be played to the infant after she is born, the sound of a heart as heard from the inside of the body. So that the child, amid so much utter newness, might have something to recognize. A single sound, on loop. Its wavelengths cutting the air in whorls and arches.
The opposite of any handprint is a particular person’s handprint. In 1935, Virginia Woolf sat in Aldous Huxley’s home while a palm reader analyzed her hand. From the reader’s report, excerpted in Abbie Garrington’s Haptic Modernism: Virginia Woolf’s rectangular palm is divided into two by the Head-line which runs right across the hand and ends in a fork. It is the Head-line of a philosopher. It is not influenced by any other part of the palm, but, self-contained, it forms a barrier between the sensitive and imaginative worlds.
…I do not dare to make any final statement as to whether this division leads to a separation between outward impressions and the experiences of the imagination or whether it acts as a power of resistance refining and subtilising outward and inner perceptions.…The most striking peculiarity of this hand is the shape and position of the fingers, which are straight, pointed and introverted.
Prior to the advent of widespread writing, documents of importance were often signed by thumbprint. The press of the skin to the paper was the person, was the promise. Our bodies and our identities travel in tandem; the touch of one to fabric or paper may leave the imprint of both. Even that which has no form may have its own kind of touch. Ernest Hemingway, on wartime: I felt my soul or something coming right out of my body, like how you’d pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner.
In medicine, guidelines as to best practices often emerge from the lessons of history. To take in what has happened. To prevent what has happened from happening again. Teaching a student about the transmission of infection from one body to another, the instructor asks the student to press one unwashed hand onto the agar plate and lift it up again, then wait. Days pass. What appears is tiny marks on the surface of the agar, formed into the silhouette of a hand.
The opposite of any handprint is the absence of any handprint. Leave no trace, demands the trail, the shore, the sea. By the tree touching the tree I hear the tree / I walk with the tree / we talk without anything.
In the theater, waiting for those who have yet to arrive, noting their absence, the stage manager finds the language of embrace: Hold the house.
In historical research, the question of how many individual people must have been involved in a given movement, or represented in a given moment, in order for it to be considered a thing of significance. Nine women in a convict labor camp in rural Louisiana or seven children in an orphanage in New York, the subjects of study. Each individual experience counts. Each individual experience is enough. Morgan Parker: The body is a person. / The body is a person. / The body is a person / The body is a person.…
In Concord, Massachusetts, down the road from Walden Pond, sits an old cemetery. The headstones sometimes fully omit the names of the deceased, in favor of foregrounding their relationships to one another: mother, father, daughter, son. Not their names, but the ways in which they held one another against the roiling world.
The proximity to a garden or forest or field, the knowledge that the living and striving structures of nature are near—this alone may have restorative effects. The term for this phenomenon is thereness. Thoreau: We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled: like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies. Next to nature, too, is the whorl of made things that move as if self-directed: pendulum, water wall, centrifuge, gauge, all arrayed in the lower level of the science museum. Upstairs, in the glassed-domed butterfly garden, monarchs and skippers and swallowtails alight on slivers of melon and green hemispheres of cut grapes. Just before the exit door stands a full-length mirror, accompanied by a sign requesting that visitors check to ensure they have no butterflies on their bodies when they leave. The intense intimacy of this experience: prolonged looking in mirrors is an activity generally reserved for private spaces—morning ablutions, dressing rooms, the tiny and fleeting solitude of the compact. But here strangers stand with each other, exposed, under the glass that is under the glassy sky, to keep the small flecked bodies in their sanctuary.
In the city, certain sidewalks play host to blocks of text that are only visible in rainfall. Poetry has been painted onto city blocks using a special sort of spray paint that shrugs off the rain as the rest of the sidewalk around it runs dark with water. The term for this collection of texts is the “concrete library.” The words form and dissolve beneath the feet of passersby, reach up to them as they huddle into slickers or umbrellas or stacks of newsprint raised over their heads. In block after block, the human touch. The opposite of any handprint is the hand.
Natalie Shapero is the Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University and the author of the books No Object and Hard Child (forthcoming 2017). Her writing has also appeared in the Nation, the New Yorker, Poetry, the Progressive, and elsewhere.