If the Heart Does Not Restart

Mary Hickman

As I try to wonder about a stroke, an embolism, a rupture, or pancreatic pathologies, sudden invasive virulence, instead I think Go to the store for Roundup. Then the French neighbor gardening in her silk blouse hints chemicals might take care of the grasses on our side, the ones choking the basil. But I say bittersweet or Japanese creeper on the fence, what’s the difference. She’s saying it again. “Sweet Autumn Clematis should be more vigorous than the large-flowered clematis hybrids.” And on the internet: “I know she fought with every ounce of strength.” Or, “She died peacefully at home.” An appropriate response to this: bullshit. She wrote so many books. She is writing so many books. All of these books undulate from her like swells, like the yellow liquid left in the tube after selling platelets. I’m not saying vampiric when I think of everything going wrong in the blood. Or the tubes carrying blood. Or blood keeps going where it shouldn’t in quantities the brain can’t handle. When he took a job counseling terminal patients, when he no longer had clients but patients, then he had the stroke. He stroked. Who knows how to respond to this? During surgeries, I watched the blood spinning through tubes, getting aerated, oxygenated, whipped up and sent back to the limbs. I wished there was less hard blue plastic, less crisscrossing of tubes and wires. My nightmares in recent years involve violating the sterile field. I touch my neck, then I touch the edge of the wound, and I am filled with shame but also fear because maybe now there’s nothing to be done since I’ve contaminated the chest cavity and the patient will most likely move on to infection, fever, death, but I won’t know because, one, I’ll wake up or, two, wakes up will stop mattering. Option three involves me trying to cry in the locker room bathroom but instead wanting a sandwich, not knowing the patient’s name anyway. I’m on the hunt here, following the vine to its root only to find it’s one vine among twelve and we’d better get the shovel or decide this is probably just wisteria that hasn’t bloomed yet. In a nightmare, I once vomited on a patient. I just missed the chest cavity. Awake, I really did drop many valuable things. One of the things given to me to hold was the heart itself. I never held a warm heart but sometimes wish I had. I think I would have cried more for a warm heart that refused to restart. The cold ones, nesting in sterile ice, never inspired hope of life. The real difference between a surgery that ends well and one that doesn’t is the way the body is closed. If the surgery is successful, then the patient’s heart restarts and the pressure comes up. A regular rhythm is achieved and we close each layer—heart, sternum, any little blood vessels, fat, each layer of dermis. If the heart does not restart, there is no careful sewing. A staple gun closes the skin but not the layers underneath. The sternum is still pulled closed with wires, but fewer and less neatly tied. I grab the incision’s edges, tug them together with one hand, and with the other, start the grating plastic click click click of the gun. The table is pulled away and the drapes peeled off the skin. We wipe away the blood and the betadine. We pull the blanket to the chin. I never stick around to see what happens next. Or I do and now I don’t know.

More by Mary Hickman

Eva Hesse

I have to be strict with myself. I want to say “fluency” or “ecstatic grammars” but I try not to be swayed by fiberglass, cylindric columns inflating and deflating, iron mesh that trails cords and petals across the floor. Resin, vellum, wax—they are translucent, skin-like. In sunlight, the sculptures warm and glow. They take on the look of light penetrating the thinner parts of our bodies, ears or hands. She conjures life and it is formal. “That’s why I think I might be so good,” she says. “I have no fear. I take risks. I have the most openness about my art. My attitude is most open. It is total freedom and the will to work.” Eva Hesse had a stepmother named Eva Hesse who had a brain tumor two years before Eva. She got out of the hospital two years to the day Eva went in. The same hospital and same doctor. In three years, two people unrelated but with the same name? Well the story goes on. In this work, she ties the frame like a hospital bandage as if someone has broken an arm. A rigid umbilical surrounds the frame. It’s composed of malleable metal. Could it expose a body? We want to know what went wrong, in the cellular, the microscopic parts, in the lipids and tissue. Out of domestic reflexes my body surrounds itself. But the body ultimately stays what it is: combines of organ, bone, tube. It resists all sense. This first sculpture resembles dried intestines pulled through wall. Catgut used to string instruments will last two thousand years and carry a fresher song. It’s very moving, visceral of course, but restrained. As vellum’s dried hide insists that there is time to consider its shape, the shape itself decays. Several of Eva’s sculptures have deteriorated. They are no longer their original selves. They cannot be handled or installed as before. Consider a sculpture that, when first made, is softly draped, understated, organic, erotic, like the meninges, the protective tissue just under the skull, and is now a rigid, tawny heap. Maybe what I really want is a round table discussion about conservation. If you cut out a sizable cube of brain it retains shape, more or less. We see the pattern develop. She only had a few hours left to live. There was so much pressure. The whole brain tipped over and all the intelligence is in the front. I’d like to try a material that will last. So many of Eva’s raw materials are casting materials. But why think about them as casting materials? Imagine, instead, she makes the sculpture directly at the moment from each pliant or resistant shell. Although it’s fragile, all Eva’s work is tactile. The work has momentum. In Vinculum, everything is tenuous, knotted loosely, and can change. And I don’t mind that, within reason. The work holds its tension even as the sculpture flexes, moves, and pours itself back into water. It is a life but of the most bizarre kind. Does it cry? Or grieve? Does it sting? Does it lie? Non-organic, but place your hand upon its hide and feel the waters riot, witness ecstatic grammars, fluent hands and a breaking, strong current and waves.

Helen

Helen is of course that Helen of Sparta. Helen of Troy. Helena hated of Greece. In a dream or trance she left Troy. She finds herself in Egypt. You must be patient, remembering. You can choose where. We are going to see whatever we haven’t seen and maybe that means traveling down instead of across. Some say Taiwan gets better surf than China’s southern beaches because it is out in the Pacific Ocean and exposed to larger swells. We camped at Bai Xia Wan. Soon Helen’s skin peeled off in one snaking tube, leaving behind pink stinging surface. I lived in the south and there were always rich oil kids around. One of the great things about Taiwan, something not really true of China, is that there are a lot of small beaches where you can surf on your own. You have to watch the weather. Once, at Bai Xia, I tried to save a surfer who was drowning. I tried desperately to save him for almost twenty minutes but he didn't make it. Paradise, that idea of being together, of fusion or whatever it might look like. Here there is peace. For Helena. Helena hated of all Greeks. For Helen, the ocean is a way to talk about raw force. Of course, the deep sea is unknown. “More people have traveled into space than have gone down to those abyssal depths,” she says. This work is work I made as we tread. While out on the coast, I kept cutting into the work, drawing over it. After living overseas for more than a decade, I had been altered in the way I had to be altered in order to enter a new lexicon, to become at once a “one” and “not one” of local culture. Whatever happened to me, I never felt out of place, like I shouldn’t be here, in this vertigo of inducing. A female traveler is a jewel-encrusted fan: Helen. She’s standing on the beach but the beach has turned to scrub brush or the tide is just out and silver is beneath the water. She sheds a silver snakeskin, broken speech. We see life and call it beauty. It is magnificent, wonderful. And remembering this scene, I see fever in her face. The sheen is so plasticine it recalls salt-eaters, salmon en croute, inky saturation, smudges, staining. It retells our whole history, a record of perforations, la parlourde, la morue, coquille St. Jacque, le filet de plié, and each notation we put in place so that we remember. Who are we? Who directs us? And after traveling so long together? Yes, it’s this voluminous nothing that at the time is very real but later, trying to hold it still for a moment, it’s then that we have reached for, or that we are straining toward, some first sight of home.

Everything Is Autobiography and Everything Is a Portrait

Your body in motion calls me to look. You know just how to move. You are determined to move just so. If I could make my image of you do anything, what could I imagine myself becoming? Rather than painting on canvas or sculpting in clay, I am driven to put all these ideas on myself. The artist’s obsession with her subjects is all that I need to drive me to work. In Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting of Cleopatra, Cleopatra reclines, heavy-lidded, left hand limp on the pillow above her head. In her right hand, she clutches an asp. Is this the moment before she is bitten or just after? I want to know whether, at the moment of death, that first release will stiffen. In Danaë, her reclining figure echoes Cleopatra’s but Danaë’s left hand is limp with leisure, not surrender, while her right holds a fistful of the gold coins raining down on her naked thighs. Looking at this painting now, I don’t feel leisure. I don’t feel sex. I feel that I might stiffen and not be able to rise. Danaë’s legs crossed at the calves and pressing against the bed cause her back to arch so that the moment of her desire mirrors Cleopatra’s death. The figure retains energy, a tension that defies either weariness or leisure. I like to work from the people that I see and that I want to see. What is fabric to skin, skin to violence? Sometimes I’m concerned with using something that’s in them and which isn’t actually visible. I try to capture the figure where the sun has darkened the skin. But that isn’t the end of the neck. In Judith Slaying Holofernes, the light hits Judith’s neck only at the base. This space between neck and breast forms a plane of skin belted with light and I can’t look away. Not the bloody knife. Not the wide eyes of Holofernes. Nothing can hold my gaze beside this neck. Artemisia has used up her patience on the neck of Judith and left nothing for the head of Holofernes. I think I use up my patience working. I use my patience looking at the skin of Judith and cannot face the dull cheek of Holofernes. Is this personal? What I increasingly feel—that awful phrase “spiritual grandeur”—I feel it like the cap of a jellyfish behind my tongue. I think a skylight must have great spiritual value. Or in Artemisia’s self-portraits, what can we say about self as martyr and self as lute player? Artemisia moves her women to action and I see the painter avenging herself again and again. As I begin to make her portrait, I am conscious of the biographical. I know that I don’t want the body to be read as a violated body. In each of her self-portraits, the same face swivels toward us. And as a martyr, she looks calm; as a lute-player, she suppresses a smile. Through my intimacy with the people I portray, I may have depicted aspects they find intrusive. I have worked to make her appear three-dimensional, rounded. But in this one, done by night under artificial light, the figure looks greenish, bony. A thumb peeks out from between two fingers of her left fist. She dreams. She falls backward. Cloth fills my vision. And I think I’d like to bring, out of the abyss of her figure, all the illumination of arrival. The skin is teeming. The skin has such great spirit. An entire world of light is at play just under the skin. Your calves become Danaë’s calves at leisure, pressed against the grey felt in pleasure, and your bare shoulders could be Judith’s shoulders, broad and reflective under skylights. But as my eyes travel up, I realize you wear the wrinkled, gutted cheek of Holofernes’s half-severed head. Or you wear the same dropped countenance as the one who watches you. This image denies me body in motion, your buoyant bulk; instead, it offers a still life of skin, a cap of flesh traversed by waves of color and revealing the threshold of my own body. If I can catch a glimpse of my face reflected in the facets of the paint, in the mirror of your shoulder, I feel myself lost inside the body that I see. I see myself in this naked body and begin to dress. What I like best is preparing for the party. I often change the fabric completely. Getting ready to go, arriving late, skipping the party, there’s no difference really. It’s only important to do the work. I’m doing what I want completely. This is where I lie.