May Day, 1961: The Jester Speaks
Without Apology to a Strange Woman


That's not my face, that careful mask:
my face is in a farther room,
turned to the wall and dull with dust.

The crooked smile -- half grief, half grin --
the whiteface with the bright red hearts
too bright and perfect on the cheeks
mark mirror hours with no-one near
and audit of my audience.
I do not cry: tears smear the paint,
nor may I drink or kiss: the same.
What? Do I take it off at night?
I once did; now I have no time:
I sleep alone, and on my back.

It's not a dull life, after all:
the King and Court are quick to please,
their tastes and trysts make ready mock.
I play the flute, turn somersaults,
attack their postures and their poems,
and argue politics to lords
who titter when they hear the truth
dogmatic as their own flat views.
The ladies love me, and their squires
trust me with tales and midnight notes,
thinking I long to lie with them
but dare not for my post and mask.
They make mistake: I know their paint
is thick as mine, if not so bright;
and they too leave it on at night.

Applause, and pearls of no great price,
are my rewards from fools for fun
who dedicate themselves to games
not seen for play: their Art, their Faith,
their Plotting or their Tomes on Thought.
I act these all within each day:
none know when I burlesque or not,
but laugh, and fail to mark their face.
They think me quick and natural,
all but a few: they do not know
the cutting tongue, the antic grace
are mine through work. I use these well
to entertain or goad, or both:
I've talent for this act, this Art.

My father raised me to a trade,
a sculptor, craftsman like himself.
No taste for toil, I came to Court,
abandoned my apprenticeship.
I say I've no regrets. It's true,
yet when they hunt I sometimes sketch
from memory, or whittle birds
and unicorns, lives small and free
and quickly made and hid away
or slipped to children or to friends.

Oh yes, I've friends:  don't look so sad.
I trust a few in minor posts,
but not too far: it is not safe.
With one or two I share my thoughts
about the Court, and drop my smirk.
These call me by my proper name;
no others know or care to hear.
No, not through malice, nor contempt:
they think in titles, not in names;
theirs are forgot or never known.

The Court's my study and my school.
I've learned the working of the land:
 the private intrigues, public lies.
I've seen the King and Church provoke
their holy wars, then wisely split
the spoils to keep the people pure.
The starving poach the King's preserves;
then swing from scaffolds at the fair
while castle boards and bedsteads groan
and I make merry in the hall,
shouting whitefaced: "Cut him down!
That dangling man deserves his life,
for naked he's the same as you!"
They see my cheek-hearts bleed with sweat
and cheer me on to clown some more.

What's that you ask? -- They join my shout,
and cut him down? Don't be naive:
they shout with me inside the hall,
but no-one frees him. Nor do I:
my post's too insecure to risk,
and touching hemp might smear my paint.
I finish shouting, take my bows,
and sing a song to calm their nerves;
then slip away to be alone
and try to carve the hangman's face
in pine or oak. He wears a mask,
yet still I seem to know his face ...
The wood is hard and tight with knots;
such nights my fire burns high till dawn.

Forget my face: you ask too much,
I say it's safely locked away.
I have a posture, not a trade:
the jester's chair is mine by choice
and part and parcel of the Court:
I don't expect the Court to change,
and need this mask to hold my post.
Perhaps some day I'll learn a trade …
right now I do not need my face.

Don't question me beneath your veil:
the key's not lost, it's just mislaid.
I do recall my proper mouth:
sometimes it speaks to me in dreams,
a trifle white and blurred by time,
perhaps, but known to me as mine.
Self-portraits? -- no, I've finished none:
my hand remembers and betrays
me when I fix my mask for Court.

Yet once, you know, I walked at night
-- a hanging night, without a moon --
and fancied that the wind flew by
and touched my cheeks, still wet with sweat;
then traced my face, not seeing the paint,
and took my image past the walls
and to a hilltop near my home:
watched it awhile, then set it free.
What was it like? -- oh, hard to say;
but I knew that hill from my younger years
and had sketched there one Spring afternoon
early in May, and not alone:
with a girl who sang while I shaped the sky.
I forget her name -- never knew, nor asked --
but I have her picture in that farther room,
done as well as my poor talent could
from memory: a lovely face, clear, and no mask …
I'd show you if I had the key.
But then, that was a hanging night,
and shouting makes my head feel light.

Next morning I forgot myself,
and went to wash my face, sleep-blind:
I'd cleaned my mouth before I stopped.
The smile was gone, the skin still white.
But white from strangeness to the sun,
no other reason seemed to fit.
To fix my mask again took hours.

You think I speak in jest? Perhaps;
one never knows to trust the fool,
and all my words come through this mask.
I do not blame your hesitance.


1 May 1961
partly for J.M.

Marginalia ( ~66-68?): "The self that's hidden in me,/ inaccessible, slips out and does/ the killing bidding of the State."

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