- Haitian Masks*
I thought that death had made him arrogant. My mother had hung her father’s death mask, where I had to look up high to that hairless white plaster double the only face of his that now seems real, sealed eyes, lips thin, tight. High forehead leading to a rough dropping edge. No skull. Surrounded by Mother’s painted self-portraits he seemed the rigid heart of a glitter-dappled corolla, idealized, pained petals, one of which was her gold-framed mirror. There she scrutinized her paling face twice a day, archingbright reds, black lashes, geisha-like powder. I grabbed that centerpiece once for Mardi Gras and ran with it hearing mother trail after me with a distinctive howl.
Pour water on my head so the sun might glimmer on me. It is for hope that God will pull them up by the hair to heaven that Hare Krishna followers dance in the cold. I saw my godfather’s face on the newspaper’s front page, large, written out as the rebel, caught by the blue-vested Macoutes. He had a new mustache. I missed his gaze, deep chestnut. Fat fingers gripped his young man’s hair as if it were a big knot at the top end of a loose rope, his neck, cut off.
You had fathered me into hope after nested clawed creatures gnawed at my heart.
I pull you from the moist shallows of the bed. Your head, like a fading bouquet your two hands hold at the throat, is offered on my lap, past use, past hope. “I am afraid” you whisper with open eyes in the early morning glare when the parched burning in your lungs sucks the last bit of breath from your recurved tongue.
Now, I move through moon-blanched visions. Fervor has the color of alizarin for a grave-digger who wants to keep you from being thrown into the communal hell-hole of those too damn poor to afford a little plot of eternal peace in the crowned downtown cemetery. I come to get you out, re-claim you, you, for many months, furrowed in the grave. I am greeted by another face and a smile without lips. A soundless wave of gleam-corseted cockroaches scurries down the two sides of your coffin. Through weeds, they run away with your image.
Selected Poems by Marilene Phipps
• Haitian Masks
• The Bull at Nan Souvenance
• My Life in Nerette
• Selected Paintings by Marilene Phipps
• Selected Paintings: Thumbnails Only
• Houses of the People and Houses of the Self: An Interview with Marilene Phipps
Marilene Phipps, a native of Haiti, has studied at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California (Berkeley) and has been a fellow at the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute. Her paintings have been exhibited in galleries and museums in Port-au-Prince, Boston, New Haven, New Orleans, Aspen, Dallas, Philadelphia, Paris, Los Angeles, and Rio de Janeiro. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
* Permission to reprint this poem, which first appeared in the Grolier Prize Annual, has been granted by the Ellen La Forge Poetry Foundation. This poem is also reprinted by permission from International Quarterly, I/4, “The Faces of Americas” issue.