Mask

…until my sister, ever tactless, said, 
“You’re assuming that you’re a great man.” 
And the words fled from the room, 
dodged the mad wheels of summer 
motor-cyclists, slapped the flags 
hoisted for the Labour Day Parade, 
ripped bunting from storefronts, 
skimmed like a skate up the Hudson, 
slid past the currents threatening 
to swallow them up; howled like a skin-
salted higue over the Brooklyn Bridge, 
rose higher, higher, wailing, drumming 
on windows no one would open. 

And I who’d helped him dream 
this greatness, could not speak. 
While his thick fingers stretched 
the accordion out like long, lost years. 
And he, pretending not to hear 
my sister’s words spoke on.

Brooding in every corner 
of the room, the lumbering shadow 
formed itself into a question: 
“Why? Why this? What way 
to reconcile my father, proud, erect, 
dressed in his well-pressed suits, 
keeping his Cadillac in mint condition? 
What way to understand the squalor 
he returned to every day? 
(MASK cont’d)

“No words,” she’d said, “there are no words
 that can describe the horror. 
No wonder he has kept us out.” 

He’d finished his stories 
of illustrious men, their deprivations, 
great deeds they’d left behind them. 
He played his final, favourite hymn, 
finding the notes by instinct, as it seemed: 
“Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh. 
Shadows of the evening, steal across the sky.” 

How often had he looked into the shapes 
behind the shadows? How often had he seen, 
among whatever demons haunted him, 
his children, whom he said he’d loved 
and left so many years ago?
                     II
Perhaps for him another kind of greatness: 
to straddle two opposing worlds 
and find some foothold; to gaze
 into the heart of his own darkness, 
square his shoulders and walk on; 
never to say, “This punishment 
is more that I can bear.” 

Sitting this summer evening in this 
Brooklyn room my sister laboured 
to restore, what does it matter now? 
We look behind the mask/ and choose to love him still.  

 


from The Stone Gatherer (Peepal Tree, 2009), © Esther Phillips 2009, used by permission of the author and the publisher

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