Phoebe Wagner is a writer, editor, and PhD candidate living in the high desert. She can be found on Twitter @pheebs_w and at her website phoebe-wagner.com
note: The second sonnet below, “Shin Portrait of a Cat”, was previously published by Vine Leaves Literary Journal.
The Illustrated Woman
“They were windows looking in upon fiery reality.”
i. The Sleeve
The sun and thumbnail moon share the pale sky
with clouds thin as the epidermis. Black pines
spread down a mountainside cliff, the roots cooled
by vein-like rivers, rivulets pooling
above a meadow. Dots of wild flowers
freckle the tussocks while a young fox stirs
in the golden grass. The tree line shades bones
bleached scar-white, but the antler remains
rise like hands praising godly carnivores
who left the perfect sculpture, picked-over
by crows and beetles. And yet, beauty waits
in bareness, so skeletons illustrate
our mantels and memories—war stories
aren’t all nightmares, and hills become valleys.
ii. Shin Portrait of a Cat
Trailer park kids down the street or a drunk
turned her Cycloptic. Maybe she traded,
the way Odin gave his for a secret—
only two eyes could save his life. She’s rank
with moxie thick as bear musk, and once dragged
a deer head to the porch, a bloody mess,
and her pelt shredded. Who did she fight off?
Next, she lost a paw but still wandered
the way a sailor returns to the sea.
After twenty-one years, her head went soft,
so Pan’s pipes drifted through her dreams and spurred
her on a final trip into the trees.
Arriving with the season’s predictions,
cats and old friends roam like constellations.
iii. Feet: Left for Mother, Right for Father
My pine tree stays evergreen as age
deteriorates her skin. Absent on earth
means alive in Heaven where her boughs spread,
strung with popcorn and angel feathers,
but before the roots die, know I planted
seeds beneath my skin. Now, needles never
brown but will they still prick my conscious?
Illness speckles spade-shaped leaves the way age
spots date well-used hands, yet dying limbs birth
small flowers. He said maturity breeds
epiphanies, so graft the survivors
onto my sapling, forming faith rooted
in lineage and troublesome terrain.
I ink a mustard seed as a promise.
iv. Forearm Sea Unicorn
The tusk spirals like a tight curl of hair,
spinning around imagination’s finger
until a tooth becomes an impaler
wielded with a vicious Viking’s care.
When ivory pierces the wave’s crest, x-ing
with another male, it is a salute
before jousting bloodies the depths. But too
slender and sensitive, the tusk, snapping
like tinder, refuses the name of lance,
except when the elder pricks his rival
with the bone twisted by time and trial,
just as a grandfather builds dominance
with a full cargo of old one-liners
earned as a shipman, during the storm’s purr.
v. Collarbone Statement:
You don’t have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body.
—C. S. Lewis
The philosopher’s stone rises from shared
lives—an amalgamation of moments
that transmutes a person, building story
from soul because legends are like mulled wine,
waiting for a timely mind to add spice
and a generation’s fresh fruit, heating
a new taste with the original heart.
Artists need to fill blank spots still unmarred
as years dirty snowflake-spirits with burnt
rubber and exhaust fumes, so I carry
oily ink the way God shaped Adam’s spine—
fingerprints left on clay skin is the price
of pushing souls beyond stasis, growing
bodies past white space as scars become art.