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Body and Mask

In the Villa Doria Pamphilj,
        I saw a carved plaque set into a wall,
        quite unremarkable,
just the usual lotto di putti,

the contest between cherubs, but then I
        saw that one of the two
        had wriggled his way somehow
inside the mask of tragedy,
the way a dog might flail blindly,
        its forequarters stuck in a paper sack,
        but more cunning than that, and not stuck,
having crawled in deliberately
(in the same way an apprentice of Cellini
        hid his lover inside a bronze head of Mars,
        her nude flank like the whites of its eyes),
the cherub’s buttocks protruding impudently,
and one arm reaching, as if in play,
        through the mask’s gaping mouth-hole
        toward ripe fruit in a bowl,
intentional and greedy.

On the far side of quince, plum and cherry,
        I noticed the other,
        his face ajar with horror.
What he had thought dead was alive, clearly:
that plump arm like a tongue, obscenely
        determined to remain among
        the pleasures of the living:
so that to say the tragic contains comedy,
or to marvel over the way
        what is dead, done, finished off
        may yet startle by its galvanic life,
its instinctive reaching for joy,
still misses the point of this ordinary
        lesson cut in Luni marble,
        which concerns instead the inevitable
fit of body and mask, their strange intimacy.
This poem originally ran in the December 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.