Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE MASK, by KAREN SWENSON

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THE MASK, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: In open palm the old man cradles his
Last Line: I leave with her naked countenance.
Subject(s): Language; Travel; Words; Vocabulary; Journeys; Trips

In open palm the old man cradles his
chiseled characters, names them - Arjuna,
Hanuman, Sita. We choose among
the faces carved to dance in villages
holding out their human hands. In two
languages we bargain circled by
children gawking, giggling at our skins.
If we reach out they shrill from our touch
equal measures of mock and real fear at
the peril of our fairness, a shade for ghosts.

The carver's white-haired wife stops me,
clasps my pallid hands in hers, dark
as the paddy earth she's tilled, and speaks,
not in her language but the old colonial
tongue, mistaking the disguise of my
paleness into her past. I hear warmth,
the urgency of sounds her mouth has not
formed for thirty years. Her voice
flutters in the vibrato of age.
I search behind the masquerade of language.

Perhaps this is a thirty-year housecleaning
of the heart pouring from its chambers all that's
not been said so death may enter. She
stops, strokes my cheek with one finger.
I leave with her naked countenance.

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