Phantom Limbs at the Antique Mall
She rummages through jam-packed stalls,
scours cluttered walls,
hallways packed high with the leavings
of reef-wrecked lives,
wives and husbands wandering, two by two,
she happily husbandless on this cold October day.
There is a stall of guns and one of clocks,
a room packed with commemorative spoons
arranged in racks,
on the walls, faded flour sacks ragged with wear.
A shelf of ruby glass catches her eye,
a mirror-backed sideboard big as a house.
She runs a finger along a marble-topped commode,
peers into oversize armoires sheltering desolate ghosts.
She tries a camelback loveseat,
stretches out on a fainting couch,
discovers the resident cat, her fur musty
with the decades’ dust, a century of shadows,
a soft and whiskered thing sentenced to a life
haunting hutches, stalking midnight mice.
Then, the little statue on a pedestal
stood in an island of light—
a sister shorn of wings, shorn of arms,
the twist of her torso her yearnings’ gist.
Venus di Milo, the nameplate said,
the keyed edge of the letters sliding perfectly
in the keyhole sockets of her eyes,
unlocking the tumblers of her jumbled quest.
She cradled her lost sister on her sweatered arm,
bought her at the silver bell counter,
carried her like a ransomed daughter,
and walked the long lake way home.
Last Wednesday, the radio spoke of phantom limbs—
amputees who still feel missing arms and legs,
who have an itch with nowhere to scratch.
Do you scratch an itch or itch a scratch?
Which is the itch and which is the scratch?
Fingers match the shape of the itch,
flesh and air, emptiness everywhere,
the air infiltrating ourselves,
our lungs buoying us up like lifejackets.
The May chorus of frogs,
the dense November fogs off Newfoundland,
the holiness of the heronry as twilight drops,
muskrats veeing across the night-calm sound—
all this began to come dimly, dimly back.
Above her as she walked, trees loosed their leaves
to skitter along the pavement
and feed the street sweeper’s ravenous mouth.
The shape of the leaf is the shape of the tree’s desire.
Human hands grasp only what will fit our fingers’ span.
Pocket knives and alphabets are the two most useful things.
Structure is desire—wings and wishes,
feathers and flight.
On the long way back, she stepped on no ants
and stepped on no cracks,
reciting her wishes silently, each whispered syllable
rising on a flutter of wings,
her little sister quiet in the crook of her arm.
Timothy Walsh (website) has placed poems and short stories in The North American Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Inkwell, New Millennium Writings and others. His awards include the Grand Prize in the Atlanta Review International Poetry Competition, the Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize from North American Review, and the Wisconsin Academy Fiction Prize. He has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac and has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize. He is the author of a book of literary criticism, The Dark Matter of Words: Absence, Unknowing, and Emptiness in Literature (Southern Illinois University Press) and two poetry collections, Wild Apples (Parallel Press) and Blue Lace Colander (Marsh River Editions). He is an Assistant Dean at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.