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.

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