ROMANCE OF THE MASK
By Frederick Pollack
By the late seventeenth century he is
at least possible, crying “Bring out
your dead” and breaking into
houses where the distinction
is moot; where the doctors
with great beaked masks full of posies
have been and gone or never came; where
the floor is rife with ichor and the air
with odors he no longer notices,
except the sweet distinctive one
of plague; where he orders
his boys to hoist and bind
to the overladen cart the once-
fat shitbag, the rag-doll girl,
the mother slumped in the last poor soup
(which luckily doused
the fire) – “Mind you don’t slip
in the slop,” he says, and they laugh,
like machines; all pockets theirs,
all purses his, all silver and gold
the king’s, but the king won’t miss
this single taper; he’s also
welcome, His Majesty is, to
that crucifix and to believing
there’s a point to all this.
The girlfriend of a friend (they had met
in AA) moved in with him;
I took her apartment. A step up
from the slums! It overlooked
a small city park. Once I’d unpacked,
I sat in my one extravagance, an Eames chair.
It was two AM. Peace, a new start
were possible. Then from below,
singing, a bottle breaking, a quarrel,
perhaps with a real person. Not just
the voice but the whole aural ambience
was of that era – rancid hippie,
or lumpen no longer able to cloak
his sores in a Movement. I listened awhile
to him and Schubert, then was smart
and tense enough to turn off all
but one small lamp before I raised
a window and yelled, “Please be quiet!”
Years (not necessarily
many, but impacted)
of hatred returned fire for some time.
I looked around my darkened new apartment,
disregarding books and LPs
and the few meagre bits
of art I’d collected. The door
to the external staircase had glass panes
and the quaint lace she’d left. There were too many
windows. I went to the kitchen for a knife
(eventually we’ll all be reduced to knives)
and stood and waited. Presumably at that moment
I could have become a conservative,
but pride and a sort of vision intervened.
(He went away; I ignored his successors,
and was only robbed once.)
That thing outside would become obsolete, impossible,
strangled in pity. My tastes, I myself, were a value,
worth fighting for, worth standing in the dark
afraid. And paranoia became destiny.
Romance of the Mask
Because few now own masks,
half-masks, or dominos,
distribute them at the door.
The new guest has no time
to admire his or hers; must put it on
to enter the spreading fan of sumptuous rooms
where waiters serve an airy bubbly.
Beneath the gilded vaults
and chandeliers rise towers, arcs,
of fingerfood, arranged to preclude crowding.
Now strings and winds and brass
proclaim themselves, and guests who have only danced
the lonely modern way
(dogs shaking themselves) are strongly
moved to find partners. Each
piquant, expressive mask
redoubles – one feels certain –
or counterpoints what lies within. Tuxes and gowns
(but how did one afford such beauty?)
confirm both one’s belonging and
advantage. Feet move magically,
waists warmly yield. And even when
one’s empty glass is swept
onto a tray by floating servants
who never collide with the dancers, all voices
sound to both speakers and hearers
as awesome as their wit.
Between the grandes chambres
lie passages and alcoves whose
erotic charge is less,
where comfortably sullen groups
play cards. Or more –
but the French doors can be locked and curtained,
while clever mechanisms
block pheromones and sounds.
In one of these small rooms,
a few recondite masks
gather by chance, and find they can’t call out.
The curves of one, concave and grey
as the visage of Quixote, offset
its wearer’s girth. “No one would dance,”
the man says. “I suppose I should have waited
for my mask to complete the process
of redemption I was everywhere observing.
But I saw it in my drink,
and was struck – though I’m normally relentlessly
upbeat – by its justice.
This mask, however, is not my soul.
My soul is the discrepancy.”
Another, all fangs and glare, speaks
with the weary objectivity that can follow
complaint. “I saw mine in a mirror
and hoped for a moment it would kiss me.
Then I told myself, How unfair.
Though I work for an oil company,
I have nothing to do with the very
top people – they’re all men – or their decisions,
and everyone likes me; this shouldn’t – ”
An artist (he declares himself as such)
expounds without encouragement
his most minor intuitions
and shows. One senses
an element of self-parody; his mask
is chubby, mean, the perfect philistine.
And one who tried longer
than the rest to make calls
has his head in his hands. The others see there’s nothing
between them; he has somehow torn
it off, and they gaze with a mixture
of horror and pity, pity outweighing horror,
which is actually quite rare and will
remain so till we have faces.
Romance of the Form
It’s one of those bureaucratic things
you can’t do online; to avoid lines,
go early. There you find the wait is short,
the lighting less than awful,
and soon you’re presenting your documents.
A poster: Kafka’s face
(the opposite of a hypnotist,
he knew you’d never look into his eyes),
circled in red with a red diagonal,
over pledges of transparency and service.
The girl across the counter (nametag ATHENA)
is to die for,
but her dark and classic features
suggest melancholy. Which –
as you turn the pages of the form,
write your initials, find papers – you also
notice in the postures of her colleagues.
“What’s wrong? Something is … forgive me for prying.”
“Oh, it’s just we’ve worked so hard
to increase client satisfaction – see the new lighting?
But this administration
only wants privatization.
We’ll be gone in a month, some company’s taking over.”
“That’s awful,” you say, with the emotion
one feels around a girl about to cry.
(She doesn’t.) “What will you do?” “I’ll have to
go back to Montana and shear sheep
with my father. The others … ”
Your anger grows. “And you’ll all be replaced by machines,
and the rates and fees will skyrocket
in the name of savings and efficiency.”
“It’s worse than that,” says a supervisor
who has been slowly approaching
behind the counter, rallying rather than browbeating
her troops, and who now stops by Athena.
MARY (thus her nametag),
middle-aged, plainly dressed,
projects brains and motherliness.
She remarks how it appears there’s
no public any more, no public interest;
there are only stakeholders
and who counts as one is decided by
the rich. You feel you could talk with her,
a now socioeconomic order
dawned; and her presence seems to hearten
Athena. But by now having reached
the last page of the form, you sign your name, fish out
your Mastercard. The fee
is exorbitant, unprecedented,
but vaguely you think
it will help them, the girl, the woman … Later
you do some checking. Insofar
as data is available, you learn
that place was privatized the month before.
Dwellers Within the Walls
The king is abducted from the midst
of his library. The cool vertical light
of his kingdom still rouses
the lofty leaded windows, but
he’s gone. For years, in fact from the start
of his reign, his studies,
by something subtler than reason, have worn down
this chair. Kings lived,
he reflects, first to kill and conquer;
then to cut ribbons
for projects lucrative to others; henceforth,
why should we not be the first and final
scholars of our realms? In gentle light
he meditates upon his nothingness
and that of human life, that of his subjects –
each, he is pleased to grasp,
the subject, himself a distant speck –
and a vast, pitying love
gilds the texts, illuminates
his notes, and binds him to his people in
his mind. The priests frown
at these insufficiently orthodox
researches. They are like rats
in the walls, scratching at thought.
He plans a salvation
vaster than theirs, less beset
by moving parts. The still chamber,
the confiding smell of heavy pages,
though borne away at once by the a/c,
promise at every moment an end of days.
And the ninjas strike. The king has time
to note that the black masks
and jammies that presumably annul
personality only announce it
more strongly. A chloroformed rag
edits time; awaking, tied to a chair
in a room too easily imagined,
the king is tirelessly shouted at.
Assumes at first some worthless branch
of the family or a clerical fronde
is fighting in the cause
of arrogance and indolence; then realizes
this violent band is acting in his name!
They loudly and repeatedly proclaim
love for His Majesty. Swear to behead themselves
for the shame of disturbing him!
But kings should not be philosophers.
(Thus the most stentorian
of the gang.) The roles
are antipodal. A king especially should never
entertain the concept Nothingness,
however arguably the basis
of human solidarity. Should renounce hope of the latter:
the folk don’t want it;
they want simple, positive ideals, war, castles,
dynastic marriages, torture, jewels.
These ideas don’t change the king’s mind;
they have no logic; but the voices,
especially the chief’s, the mere prolonged panicked
noise suggests a vision
more global and convincing than his own.
When he barks, they release him.
Loyal troops break in, arrest the loyal thugs.
At whose dreadful executions,
and thousands more, the king officiates
In long-abandoned ermine.
Mothers in that realm are famously what
they are not. Not rewarded
for their pains, except sometimes
with medals; not provided domestic help; not
listened to, though often self-doubt,
the weakness of seeing all sides, makes them
not want to be heard. The one who shakes her child
because it won’t stop crying
knows what she is: in need
of sleep. Her classier sister knows
preeminently that she is not
that mother. Or is she? The image, the possibility
remain; self-doubt sustains them. A boy
ripens in silence, which he fills himself.
No distraught, improvised moralism
at school or elsewhere interrupts
which is focused by blows to the head;
he achieves manumission: a gun,
and maturity: shoots. He has many siblings,
who eat. Great placid balloons roam
the stores. They will not be shot
or, probably, molested; a long, kind, sickly
twilight has them in its care.
Around them labile hierarchies form.
Boys don’t despise, they go directly
to hatred or, if possible,
disregard. Girls do what boys do,
more subtly and more often to
themselves. They observe
men, those acrobats whose five limbs flail
(the head, a sixth, is stunted); who break-dance and
do cartwheels, often wheeling
themselves away. High-ranking mothers
stare between calls
on their time at plates
on which lie shreds of lettuce or,
as in the best cartoons, a single pill.
In that realm, in the capital
(which is most of it), between
the walls, Capital and Labor
celebrate the extinction of
their conflict, even of
their names. All now
are partners, and what they produce
is feeling. A worker
on the verge of being sent
to outer darkness weeps. A manager,
highly-trained, a specialist in
this area, bends
over the hunched form,
one arm across the shaking back (he’s
prepared, however, for acting out),
and weeps too. So sad are the pressures,
so inhuman necessity.
They, employee and manager, could have
been friends. They are now,
in this extremity. The ex-worker
yearns toward the pathos in
the manager, is washed by his compassion,
transcends for a moment petty concerns,
sees the rightness.
The manager is genuinely moved.
The whole office or dying factory
is moved. He whispers in the worker’s ear,
as a token of hope, the name of
a current enemy. Police also
weep when they must evict,
arrest or shoot somebody immature.
Executives, managers, stakeholders,
“partners” and beggars
round-dance in beery plazas
around bonfires highlighting
the enemy. Always, a general speaks.
To the extent career allows him,
he hints that walls and air- and cyber-
war will not suffice
for victory, but in his peroration hails
the king and assures the crowd
that victory is assured;
the face always shows,
despite the iron jaw, the slightly
epicene ambivalence of art.
In white, fluorescent-fitful, barely-
equipped faculty lounges or
dark booklined chambers, scholars desert
the topics of their conferences, drift
insensibly toward what really,
necessarily, interests them:
the power of witches;
the means of identifying
warlocks (which any of them might be);
werewolves, hants, and
(e.g., among their students) succubi.
The tone at first is light, which passes
for rational, but soon devolves
on hushed authentic horror.
“I never thought it was under the bed.
It was in the closet.
And there was something in the closet.
But we moved, and I’ve never been back,
and that house burned, and now I’ll never know.”
“And even if you’d looked, you wouldn’t know;
whatever’s there, however much pain
it inflicts, it isn’t part of the world, has
no name, because language
(which we professionally overestimate)
is also part of the world.” “One might apply that
to politics. Decay, betrayal – to see them
as merely an error in a system is
an error.” “Could one say the same
about love?” “Perhaps it’s a privilege
to live in a closet.” “You got that from Lecter –
I read it in one of his papers.”
“Did you ever notice his hands?”
(A shudder.) “Like those of my ex-wife’s
lawyer.” “Like my mother’s.”
“Like mine.” By now the torches have guttered,
and the general trembling
has grown to the point
that the scholars, nearly ghosts themselves,
are glad when a priest enters: Father
Something from the Divinity School.
Who gauges their demoralization
and sighs, but whose dismay
conceals perhaps a gleeful mental
hand-rubbing; one might even think …
An alarum from the walls, which all social
strata hurry to see,
texting or calling confusedly down
to those who cannot crowd onto
the battlements. What matters isn’t
or crossbows are being aimed, only the grim, timeless
soldier postures. What’s primarily
shocking about the figure
outside and below is that it is
outside. Few come;
predictable rubes. The people
draw on that store of names,
images, fetishes which
are always there – more definite
the less defined, clearer when unexampled.
Is it a nomad
from tribes who suddenly exist
to the north and east, a stray,
a scout? Is it a barbarian
(he looks like a barbarian),
planning an attack? A leper.
A mutant spawned by tests
in the desert. A bad element.
But there are minds more curious and generous,
who imagine benign particulars and a general
welcome, so that they may be
disabused, and feel virtuous and martyred.
Perhaps he’s a minstrel. He looks like
a minstrel. Squints up and back at them,
scratches his side, seems undecided whether
to caper, gesture obscenely, plead, or bow.
About the Author:
Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems, THE ADVENTURE and HAPPINESS, both published by Story Line Press. A collection of shorter poems, A POVERTY OF WORDS, 2015 from Prolific Press. Another collection, LANDSCAPE WITH MUTANT, to be published by Smokestack Books (UK), 2018. Has appeared in Hudson Review, Salmagundi, Poetry Salzburg Review, Die Gazette (Munich), The Fish Anthology (Ireland), Representations, Magma (UK), Iota (UK), Bateau, Main Street Rag, Manhattan Review, etc. Online, poems have appeared in Big Bridge, Allegro, Hamilton Stone Review, Diagram, BlazeVox, The New Hampshire Review, Mudlark, Occupoetry, Faircloth Review, Triggerfish, Thunderdome, Neglected Ratio, etc.