How Poems Work: on Anne Michael’s "Phantom Limbs"

Phantom Limbs

Anne Michaels

(The Weight of Oranges / Miner’s Pond. McClelland & Stewart, 1997. p.86)
“The face of the city changes more quickly, alas! than the mortal heart.”
—Charles Baudelaire

So much of the city
is our bodies. Places in us
old light still slants through to.
Places that no longer exist but are full of feeling,
like phantom limbs.

Even the city carries ruins in its heart.
Longs to be touched in places
only it remembers.
Through the yellow hooves
of the ginkgo, parchment light;
in that apartment where I first
touched your shoulders under your sweater,
that October afternoon you left keys
in the fridge, milk on the table.
The yard – our moonlight motel –
where we slept summer’s hottest nights,
on grass so cold it felt wet.
Behind us, freight trains crossed the city,
a steel banner, a noisy wall.
Now the hollow diad
floats behind glass
in office towers also haunted
by our voices.

Few buildings, few lives
are built so well
even their ruins are beautiful.
But we loved the abandoned distillery:
stone floors cracking under empty vats,
wooden floors half rotted into dirt;
stairs leading nowhere; high rooms
run through with swords of dusty light.
A place the rain still loved, its silver paint
on rusted things that had stopped moving it seemed, for us.
Closed rooms open only to weather,
pungent with soot and molasses,
scent-stung. A place
where everything too big to take apart
had been left behind.



It would hardly come as a surprise that one of the first modern scientific attempts to describe the condition that found its way into the title of this poem was written by one of the world’s most foremost neurologists of the time. What is a bit shocking, however, is that it first appeared in a piece of prose fiction he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly. There is an element of mystery to this psychosomatic phenomenon that almost transcends the realm of scientific data into story, into poetry.

In this poem about remembering, author and poet Anne Michaels enters into that painful mystery, summoning imagery and provoking the imagination with careful force. She presents an anthropomorphized city, which for her takes on such human quality that the absence, change, and ruin of this place that is so near are as moving and real as the experience of one suffering a severed limb.

There is a intense sense of connectedness with the city; the poem’s narrator is enjoined to this place as if with tendons and veins, with experience, sight and smell. In the first of the poem’s two larger portions, the memories of intimate encounters are brought into focus, with the city’s memories (of apartment, yard, motel and trains) as the backdrop. Like the surprising sensations of a lost limb, the memories are beautiful in their simplicity: the touch of a lover’s shoulders, misplaced keys, nights spent asleep in the yard. This deeply moving insight into the wonder found and experienced in the most ordinary threads of human existence is characteristic of Michael’s writing, which evidences great concern for small detail.

Though the city shares these deeply human memories and affections, longing “to be touched in places only it remembers,” what was so intimately shared between the two is eclipsed by the changing city and left as a shadow behind “glass in office towers,” their voices as those of ghosts.

In the final verse, Michaels makes much use of verbs. Perhaps here she is imitating precisely what is experienced with so-called phantom limbs – a surreal presence and sense of movement where nothing physically remains. Where there stands an abandoned building – a decaying cavity of a distillery – there is still some sort of movement that is maintained in its memory. With apparent intention, Michaels chose not to simply affix inert adjectives to the floors, stairs, and rooms, but animated the memories in order that they might become what they are for the poem’s narrator – alive and active, cracking, leading, running, opening, and for a moment, standing still for all of those present. One of the city’s appendages is here gone, but the space it has left is still filled, still feeling. Nearly every line here contains words of movement. And that movement, however painful, empty, and unlike the former life of those walls, is remembered with a certain affection, reflecting on a aching beauty that has been translated into the hollow absence left in this landscape.

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