"Self-Portrait as Four Styles of Pompeian
from THE VISIBLE MAN
To become oneself is so exhausting
that I am as others have made me,
imitating monumental Greek statuary
despite my own feminized way of being.
Like the empire, I was born of pain--
or like a boy, one might say, for I have
become my father, whom I cannot fathom;
the past is a fetish I disdain.
Since they found the bloodless little girl,
with voluptuous lips, buried in me,
I am unsentimental. I do not see
the gold sky at sunset but blackbirds hurled
like lava stones. I am like a severed
finger lost in the wreckage forever.
Unable to care for people, I care
mostly for things. At my bitterest,
I see love as self-censorship.
My face is a little Roman theater
in perfect perspective--with colonnades
and landscapes--making illusionistic
reference to feelings I cannot admit.
Painted in Dionysiac yellows and reds,
my unconscious is a rocky grotto
where flies buzz like formalists.
Despite myself, I am not a composite
of signs to be deciphered. In the ghetto--
where Jews, prostitutes and sailors once lived--
I am happiest because I am undisguised.
Tearing away at an old self to make
a new one, I am my most Augustan.
I grieve little. I try to accustom
myself to what is un--Hellenized and chaste.
I let my flat black dado assert
itself without ornament. Can it be, at last,
that I am I--accepting lice clasped
to me like a dirty Colosseum cat?
On a faded panel of Pompeian red,
there's an erotic x-ray of my soul:
a pale boy-girl figure is unconsoled,
pinned from behind at the farthest edge
of human love, where the conscience is not whole,
yet finely engraved like a snail's shell.
If great rooms declare themselves by the life
lived in them, each night I am reborn
as men and boys stroll among the ruins,
anonymously skirting the floodlights,
sinking into me tenderly, as they do
each other during their brief hungry acts.
"As brief as love," they used to say, Plato
and his kind, exiling man from happiness,
but I am more than a cave whose campfire,
swelling and contracting, is all that is real.
Tomorrow, when I am drunk on sunlight,
I will still feel the furtive glances,
the unchaste kisses and the wet skin
imprinting me until I am born again.
Thus are we when gathering together
to contemplate the unthinkable:
somber & a little run-down.
At their long table
laid out in a white cloth,
so much fealty between brothers
looks, at first, sentimental or false.
Then the speaking hands pull a belt
around the unbeliever's heart:
shakes his finger in the air.
"Put your finger here, Thomas,"
Christ will say in a few days' time,
showing him the nail holes.
Somnolent John, the faithful one,
with no chest to lay his head upon,
folds his hands serenely.
Poor Peter grasps a knife prophetically;
later, he'll cut off a soldier's ear.
They, in turn, will crucify him, upside-down.
Impetuous James, the older one, is blocking
the others with outstretched arms,
as the younger one, with an open face like Jesus',
reaches out to touch Peter's shoulder.
But it is too late.
Isolated, with heavy arms
and a fist of money,
the one who will change us all
has upset the salt shaker,
portending more bad luck.
Bartholomew, in whom there is no falseness,
rises and puts his big hands flat on the table.
Sweet Philip points to himself almost femininely,
asking, "Could it be me?"
With open palms before him,
Andrew tries to calm them.
Handsome Matthew cannot take in what is happening;
his long manicured hands betray his wealth.
All the light from the window
shines on Simon's bald head
as he gestures thoughtfully to Thaddeus,
who is looking right at me
and wringing his hands,
as if to ask, "Do you believe?"
But it is too late.
Great folds of silk,
patterned with hoo birds and yellow dragons,
arrive under parasols out of the rain.
each one spotlit like a paradigm,
pass demurely into the refectory.
With medallions tinkling on their black wigs
and thick swathed obis tied much too tight,
standing face to face with the apostles,
woman to man, what do they see?
the oldest thing on Earth, touched up,
bombed, vanishing beneath excrement
of large and small organisms.
Human anguish: Buddhist or Catholic,
it deadens us. Betrayal:
that lead coffin among wooden coffins.
Supper: pewter plates heaped with lamb bones,
a glass of wine (not spilt blood),
hunks of bread (not flesh).
Jesus: who cannot lead us all.
Sunset: bathing humanity sympathetically,
despite the muddling.
And forgiveness: sentimental manna
so hard to swallow it unshackles us.
Excerpted from The Visible Man by Henri Cole. Copyrightę 1998 by Henri Cole. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., a division of
Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this poem may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.