1st Place Poetry
A Hand in Absentia by Paul O'Brien
By the Pórtico da Gloria, I thought of you.
I’d been stopped in my tracks where
countless pilgrims, all scalloped and sole spent,
had taken the best part of a millennium
to erode in the arch’s marble mullion,
particle by particle, the hollow imprint of a hand.
Press the finger to the wound: has flesh become word?
Later, when the man who sold castañas on the street
heard me tell your tale, he said that fallen nuts
from trees that have borne the troubled on a rope
sprout unseen and grow downward to the core
and that, when mature, the candle-flowers
light the bedrock the way the fields are lit by stars.
I smiled to indulge him, but couldn’t help but think
of your skin beneath the makeup when they’d laid you out
and your silent, shell-shocked mother, unreachable in grief,
a thousand years from handshakes, platitudes and tea.
While she sat in vigil – eclipsed in queuing shadows
beneath a lone dangling light – not once could she leave
your side, yet weeks wore on before she’d brave
the meat-raw reliquary of your room. It was there
she found among the trinkets, books and limbless dolls
the slate of potter’s clay on which, as a girl,
you’d imprinted your thumb, fingers and palm.
And it was there she wept for you –
for every absent arch and loop and whorl of you –
and to that clay, that unsparing clay,
pressed her pilgrim hand.