‘Mask’: A poem by Beth Bachmann

illustration of a medieval plague doctor in a bird mask

the word "Mask" in a script font

During our self-isolation, you send me collages
of God’s blown animals, breathed into, heated

and shaped like glass. Our skin is full of holes
for oil and sweat. When I whisper,  Breathe me in,

I mean all of me—the scent of my flesh, but also me,
my god, the beginning of the fulfillment of this desire.

In a mask, you can be whoever I want you to be, king
or dog:  muse  comes from  muzzle, to track your kill.

The plague doctors wore masks in the shape of a bird,
the beak filled with fresh clippings: juniper, rose, clove.

The mask is a type of respirator, meaning breathe again,
which is how we’ve managed to stay alive all these years.

Through the glass eyes, they could examine the body
they could not touch with their bare hands.

Breath can be both instinctive and controlled.
Matisse’s most famous cutout is “Blue Nude II,”

a woman who appears to be made of parts, but who
was scissored instead from a single sheet of paper.

Beth Bachmann is currently writer-in-residence in the Master of Fine Arts program of Vanderbilt’s English department. A 2016 Guggenheim fellow in poetry, she is the author of three books of verse: Temper, Do Not Rise and Cease. This poem originally appeared in The New Yorker’s April 6, 2020, issue and is reprinted by permission of the author.

illustration by Anastasia Karelskaya