Return to 4th Floor Contents 2012

Helen Heath

On hands and being held


There is something so appealing about a rapturous, uplifting moment. Even an atheist like myself longs to feel lifted, held. There aren’t many times in our adult lives that we are picked up, it’s usually only as babies and small children. Often we have to hold up others when we are in most need of being held, at least this was true for me when my children were small. But all kinds of art can carry us up, away, and out of ourselves.

In 2005 I wrote a small collection of domestic poetry, things felt great but by the following year I had plunged into suburban neurosis, the domestic had consumed me. When we have children we often return to suburbia and are compelled to revisit our own childhoods and parents.

Hands come together in applause at school assembly, smarting from the enthusiasm. Hands in the playground clapping out a rhyme:
Under the bamboo bushes, under the sea, boom, boom, boom. True love for-e-ever-er, true love for me, boom, boom, boom.

It was the year that Bill Manhire’s book of poems Lifted was published, in which even inanimate domestic objects long to be held up, like ‘The ladder’:
And, as you can see, it is rotten./ Nevertheless, it longs to be lifted. 1

The first thing mothers do when a child is ill is place their hands on the child’s brow; this gesture is at once practical and caring. It tests for fakes and demonstrates love. The thermometer for my own health is my writing. My partner often says, ‘Put your own oxygen mask on first’ – you have to look after yourself so you can look after those who depend on you. That’s easier said than done when you are a mother. Kids take as much as you’ll give them, mothers need to learn how to survive.

I have my mother’s hands but larger bones. I’m not sure how it will be when my hands become older than my memory of her hands.

2005 was also the year I saw Joanna Braithwaite’s exhibition Wonderland at the Christchurch Art Gallery. Part of that exhibition was the ‘Hover’ series, which shows people being held by creatures that can fly – butterflies, bees and birds. The paintings push the boundaries of commonsense and the laws of physics. The people and creatures are in mid-air, ascending, floating or falling, we don’t know which. The frame holds no other reference points to show how high they are. We need to suspend disbelief and float with them.

I’ve always been an early riser. I feel like anything could happen in that time when no one else is up and the house is still. You’re alone but not, surrounded by bodies sleeping in other rooms. Children, a lover.  Lovers hold hands, can’t keep their hands off each other, touching constantly. As if broken contact will break a relationship. The first weeks and months spent exploring the topography of each other. Smooth, rough, wet, dry, soft, hard, until it becomes predictable, anticipated. Then the first argument, a finger stabbing the air accusingly. The first make-up kiss, a finger wiping away a tear.

I was taught that hands are something you keep busy; my matrilineal line produced vast amounts of embroidery, knitted garments and home-sewn wardrobes. It was a matter of pride. The women in my family are all a bit proud and haughty – except perhaps Aunty Nora, who was just naughty. Still, her hands flew with needles, I have sack loads of doilies to testify. Some days I feel so productive, like sparks might fly out of my fingertips. Our hands take it all, we bite our nails from anxiety or boredom, we prick them with a needle (or spindle), paper cuts, skinned knuckles, jammed in the door, hammer on the thumb, blisters, calluses.

If we rise we can also fall. Braithwaite’s painting ‘Bee Being’ combines a spiritually uplifting effect with acute unease at the sight of bees swarming on a human body and the threat of their sting. In ‘Butterfly Being’, a vertical figure gazes up as it is raised by a cloud of blue butterflies, like a Baroque image of ascension. The bodies are still, passive, pale, with closed eyes. If not dead, these bodies are unconsciousness, or in a trance-like state. One of the flight paintings also shows a person plunging earthwards, upside down, covered in white butterflies. Here there is no sense of the balance of the other works of the series, just an extreme sense of awkwardness and dizzying speed. Mysteriously in this instance the butterflies have failed to keep the figure airborne. 2

Our fortunes lie in our palms. When I was eighteen I had my palms read, the man said I was a writer. But I think really our fate lies in our own hands, that we create our own destinies. I say to myself, ‘I am me, I am not my mother. I make myself, I make my future.’ And I’m busy – my hands are working so fast they’re flying.

Coming down, for me, is sudden. I wake one morning and there is no promise in a new day. Nothing will happen but the fall. On those days I long to be held up or just held by giant ghostly arms.

     There are mothers and fathers, Kevin, whom we barely know.

     They lift us. Eventually we all shall go

     into the dark furniture of the radio. 3

They may lift us but they cannot hold us, like the rungs of a rotten ladder or, perhaps, white butterflies.


1 Bill Manhire, ‘The ladder’ from Lifted, Victoria University Press, 2005.
2 Lisa Beaven, ‘Taking Flight: The Airborne and Hybrid Images of Joanna Braithwaite’ Art New Zealand 102, Spring 2002.
3 Bill Manhire, ‘Kevin’ from Lifted, Victoria University Press, 2005.



Contents | About this Author

Permanent link to this article: