Secret Maps

Holly Wright's Photographs of Hands

Charles Simic

The power of the visible
is the invisible
—Marianne Moor

The philosophers and the mystics have told us again and again: the key to the mysteries is already in our hands. It was al­ways there. We only have to open our hand, finger by finger, and find it.

“He looked at his hands without recognizing them,” we say of the murderer.

If to our eyes both of our hands appear to be empty, it’s because we haven’t looked well enough. The palm readers know better. The darkest place, according to the Chinese proverb, is always underneath the lamp. The criss-crossed, broken, and faded lines of the secret map of our lives lie in our open hand.

The magician and the card trickster who practice sleight of hand know we do not always trust our eyes. At the very moment they are rolling up their sleeve and showing us that their hand is not concealing anything from us, an egg or an ace of spades makes its miraculous appearance between their fingers.

What things seem to be and what they truly are is the perennial subject of philosophical inquiry. The play of ambiguities they generate is also the concern of all arts. If we were not all naturally curious as to the difference between the two, neither magic nor photography would be possible.

Surprise me, we ask the artist. Make the familiar strange again. Restore wonder to our lives. It’s not the truth we crave but a new visual experience. Without its obsession with new image, modern painting and poetry would be unimaginable.

We do not identify at first the hands in Wright’s photographs, of course. For all we know, we could be looking at Indian (Tantric) sculptures with their seemingly infinite variety of sexual embraces. That’s how exotic these familiar hands have become.

Wright offers us a new kind of trompe l’oeil. Her photographs are mirrors, but of a strange kind. We can see ourselves reflected in them only if we close our eyes. These may be the hands we clasp behind our head while our eyes are veiled in reverie.

Where does the image in the photograph come from, we ask ourselves? Is it inside my head? Is it in the photograph itself? We are looking at Wright’s hands with our eyes simultaneously open and shut.

How is that possible, you ask? Look at the photographs and you’ll know what I mean.

If to our eyes both of our hands appear to be empty, it’s because we haven’t looked well enough.

Secret nooks and crannies of the body and images of making love float out of the dark into the milky light in the back of our heads. It’s a shock. Wright’s photographs are unquestionably erotic, and that, we must remember, is an experience unknown to the aesthetic and moral tradition in this country. That, in my mind, is precisely what makes them so delightful and so subversive.

Photography is an art that plays off darkness against light, the visible against the hidden, in the same way that eroticism does. Can we say that any image blurred and difficult to identify becomes charged erotically? Pornography shows everything; eroticism gives us only a peek through the keyhole of our parents’ bedroom.

Memory, imagination, and desire grasp the offered hand, as it were. The figure of speech applicable here would be metonymy: a part stands for the whole. Perhaps all acts of the imagination are a search for the absent phantom of our desire?

Here, for instance, is an index finger sticking up with sugar on it. “Powdered sugar, the white gold of candy and pastry makers,” Piero Camporesi says. The fine arts, we might say, are poetry, painting, music, reverie, and the licking of sticky fingers.

Our first toys were our hands. Our first taste of home cooking was sucking our fingers in the crib. When you love something, we learn then, it’s best to use the tongue and, even better, to put it in your mouth.

Two fingers smeared with what might be crème fraiche. The high compliment you can pay to a cook: “It was so good, we wanted to lick our fingers.”

Our mothers knew, the hand that finds its way into a honey jar will stray under someone’s skirt or into someone’s pants sooner or later.

“The flies in the temple imitate the hands of the people with prayer beads,” says the Japanese poet Issa.

Of course, we think. Our dogs and cats and even the flies on our walls are watching our hands day and night.

The hand and its five fingers: the continuous live sex show in the theater of Mr. and Mrs. Anybody.

Only a good photographer would see the hands for what they really are.

Charles Simic was a Serbian-American poet and essayist. Born in Belgrade, he and his family immigrated to America when he was in high school. He won numerous prizes for his poetry, including the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, and served as the United States Poet Laureate.
Originally published:
October 1, 1996


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