March 23 1821

The Life Mask (1816)

They think you were dead, John! But you were just patiently waiting
— facemasked in plaster — with eyes closed, for someone to tap it
and cheerfully tell you that’s it! You can get up and talk now!
Your jaw’s clenched to stop you from laughing, or letting ideas
leak into discussion — it’s all in your temples, the effort,
and also a certain excitement — while Haydon, your sculptor,
admonishes you to keep still or you’ll die without cracking
that old childhood mystery: how do I look with my eyes shut?
The turban he’s wrapped round your hairline, to keep it from pulling —
he’d never have done that if this were a death mask. No need to.
And your eyes, even shut in cold plaster, are so nearly twitching
you no more look dead than the way people look when they’re hiding,
peeking through gauze, counting silently, ready or nothing,
and someone hears breathing and opens the curtain, and finds them.

from Me and the Dead, Salt Publishing

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