Featured Poem • September 2017

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Masques and Mayhem

 

Jennifer Crow

 
 

I. We bow at the twitch of strings, a marionette web of lives tangled by passion, knit together. Unwind me, slip the constraints of polite society, hide your face and we will build a secret between us, lovers’ knot done and undone again before sunrise. II. You and I have danced before, our beaked masks knocking together, making dull papier-mâché thuds like desiccated hearts dropped on the ballroom parquet. When you weep, kohl and paint trickle from beneath the gilt-rimmed edges of your false face. Do not pretend you have a soul now—I only touched you because your emptiness called to mine. III. You changed masks and danced with me again, a quiet scandal reflecting across the gleaming boards. First a raven, glossy black and sprightly, bowing to maiden and crone alike, then a peacock strutting from partner to partner with your beak held high. You think yourself secret, safe, but my eyes see deeper than your feathers. Whatever trickster rides you, the godling seeps from your skin and lights your eyes. Only a fool would take a man like that to her bed. But I have never been wise. IV. I watch her watch him. She leans into his presence, a blossom bending to the sun that will burn it to dust. or perhaps a songbird lured to the hunter’s hand—poetry fails me as I drift the outskirts of the ball, shrouded in a plain gray mask, a dove gray suit. how can I hope to draw her eye, when all that glitters in me has vanished beneath years of shabby hopes and misbegotten dreams? The hectic light in her tells me she will not live to gain wisdom. V. A shadow at the edges of the room, a cloud that leaches the joy out of each couple he passes, his dour countenance a mockery of our revels. I move to cast him out, but something stays me— a whisper of sympathy, or perhaps fear. He wears mourning gray like a shroud, but more than that, his grief boils up from his soul, a storm brewing in the marrow. We meet, our respective orbits crossing, and he dares mock me with a smile, bared blade of teeth and grim humor. Neither of us stands in the circle of love’s safety, neither of us ready to admit we have gambled with life and lost. I gesture toward the door, but he mistakes it for an invitation and captures my fingers. VI. Our host finds an unwilling suitor between the punch bowl and the band. Behind fans, matrons with fox-sharp eyes murmur, for they own our fates, winding and stitching secrets by day, and winnowing lives by night. Their coven dresses in bright silks, and jewels glitter at their throats and in their hair. but in their gaze, only the darkness of a sealed tomb, and the copper scent of blood. They feast without leaving their seats, and I wait, fingering the silver blade in my sleeve. VII. As we wind handkerchiefs around our fingers, so their lives spin around us, and as we trap the fragile wings of our fans, so they turn and turn, and cannot break free. Each dance makes up part of the pattern, each curtsey or cut weaves into a tapestry of evils. We remember dancing, but now we watch as the ladies always have, and summon our amusements like a demon’s brood.

 

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Shy and nocturnal, Jennifer Crow has rarely been photographed in the wild, but it’s rumored that she lives near a waterfall in western New York. You can find her poetry on several websites, including Goblin Fruit, Uncanny, Mythic Delirium, Eye to the Telescope, and Mithila Review. She’s always happy to connect with readers on her Facebook author page or on Twitter @writerjencrow.

About this poem, she wrote: “I love writing poetry for prompts that friends give me. Quite some time ago Claire Cooney asked for a poem about masks. I thought about a masquerade ball, the people who might attend, and the way their desires and ambitions might intersect and clash, and that’s where ‘Masques and Mayhem’ came together. I wouldn’t necessarily want to go to this party, but it was fun to imagine.”

 

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