Who are we really? We can present ourself to the world in many ways, and we do. It’s been quite a while since I posted a longer poem on my blog, so today I offer you a poem called “Mask Maker.” It was written to an ekphrastic prompt on Rattle a few months back, but it was not selected. The two winning poems were brilliant and should have been chosen.
What’s great about writing to a good prompt is how an image can pull all sorts of ideas from us. The prompt was a picture of several sets of hands modeling in clay. I toyed with the idea for quite some time and discarded two other poems until I settled on the one that grew into this poem.
Do you like this mask, the one I made
so carefully, molding it to the contours
of my face so it looks just like me?
I wear it day after day, occasionally
slipping it off and refashioning it a bit.
It changes as I change.
I was four when I made the first mask—
out of mud from the bare earth in the yard.
It blocked my fear, and hid my thoughts.
I was invisible to the world, hidden behind
this new cover. No one noticed when I wore it,
so I kept it on, and it protected me.
Once it nearly shattered during that long fall
down the stairs that he never spoke about.
Dazed, I woke up and checked the mask.
It was the one thing that hadn’t been hurt.
After that I knew I needed it to keep me safe,
to keep me quiet, to keep me out of the way.
When I closed my eyes, I could imagine it was
no longer a mask but just me, unseen by him.
It made me look like a normal girl, a good girl.
After many years and many masks, I became
quite good at molding a mask so flawlessly thin,
so delicate, transparent as a butterfly wing.
It was easy to slip on, and no one could tell
what was real and what was not, even up close.
It worked, and that’s all I ever wanted.
There is a small secret I learned from making
masks and wearing them day and night:
You must believe it’s you and not a mask.
It is you, but a different you, a you that won’t
cry out or tell secrets or even cringe too much
when unexpected blows come (and they do).
Close your eyes now. Imagine yourself this
way—in control and protected from the world,
safe from everything you fear, hidden far away
behind this lovely mask where you can watch
what’s going on, where you can be vigilant,
and where you are the real you only you can see.