Museum Sickness by Eva Heisler


The fisted hands of Egyptian statues. The cupped palm of Venus coyly marking her nakedness. I jot notes in anticipation of a long forgetfulness. The raised crooked finger of a Greek icon. The green finger of a dead Christ. I am exhausted by the compulsion to read wall labels. The long fingers of a Flemish figure in prayer. I rest on a bench and study a painting of Mary Magdalene stretching her arms to Christ. She just misses making contact. Christ’s left foot is turned towards her while the right is already departing. Noli me tangere.

The artist with disfigured hands paints those same misshapen hands on his figures, Leonardo is reported to have said. That damp afternoon in Paris, all I saw were my own stiff hands emerging from the sleeves of strangers. My chapped hands brushing rain from a child’s shoulders. Mine on an elderly woman adjusting sandal strap. Mine on a young man twisting long sleek hair into a knot. Mine as the glitzy fingers of a pontiff. Mine as the sooty fingers of Caravaggio’s boy offering grapes.

In the museum’s café, I am about to record a startling memory of touch, but my pen rolls off the table. I recall my hands at sixteen, scrubbed thoughtlessly with turpentine, fingers impatient and immortal. My napkin, too, has fallen. I press a hand to my lips as if to suppress a cough and quickly brush crumbs from the corners of my mouth.

A second mouth—this one on the palm of my hand, a gash from slipping on wet pavement and grabbing the rusty gnarl of a broken railing—begins to bleed. The mouth mutters something, something. Something must give. I cannot reach my napkin, so I wrap the bleeding hand in my favorite scarf. Later, in my flat, I will bandage the hand and gag its something-something mouth. Mine as the bloody fingers of Judith sawing at the neck of Holofernes.

A young man—bright with cheer—joins my table. I haven’t spoken to anyone but waiters and docents for seventeen days. Small talk is as difficult as lifting the carafe and pouring without spilling. The young man is waiting for a friend. His friend is late, and he worries one of them may have confused the date. I allow him to refill my glass, and I accept his offer to fetch another coffee. He retrieves my pen. “Voilà!”

It is a relief to no longer mistake kindness for desire. The young man nods and murmurs “Madame” before hurrying away. I watch his rush to a friend. I observe the perfect handshake, a vigorous three shakes lasting no more than three seconds.

I am in Paris because of a handshake that lasted seven seconds. I accepted the invitation. It was the allure of a glass hand. It is to this hand that I now speak. It is a buried hand I summon in order to quiet my palsied right hand and the nattering left with its bleeding mouth. Talk to the hand. I talk to the hand. His as the gloved hands of Dürer posing as an Italian. Mine as the splayed fingers of a naked Susanna surprised by Elders.

Eva Heisler is a Maryland-born poet and art critic who currently lives in Germany. She has published two books of poems: Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic (Kore Press) and Drawing Water (Noctuary Press). She is Visual Editor of Asymptote, a journal of world literature in translation.