My brother-in-law suffered a bad stroke about a decade ago and was stricken with aphasia. In the last couple of years before his death in January 2019, he was in therapy and he made this mask. I thought it was a profound struggle of a “soul” shouting out to a world that had “forgotten him.” Jim’s soul must have been desperately wanting to speak to former friends or even family, and the mask reveals to me a plea for a touch of love, or a simple smile from that outer world that he will never see again. I hope the poem speaks for itself.
by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964-66
We think we read faces and focus
on a people’s eyes, “the windows
to the soul.” But each mask speaks
a different language, and each mask
looks at us with a different set of eyes.
Sometimes faces and masks telegraph
identical messages, but their codes
and thoughts are protected behind eyes
too cloudy or hesitant or afraid
to join in this game of reading masks.
We can never rip off the mask to see
the face behind the mask. Probably
we’d discover layers of masks covering
more faces and windows, and the soul
hides behind all the faces and eyes.
There are masks to relay smiles, others
for frowns, masks for laughter, masks
to mask tears and fear, and each one
with a pair of eyes that delivers separate
analysis of random, scrambled thoughts.
More faces and masks and eyes to read,
more winding jumbles and twists for
our eyes to unravel in one lifetime.
We beg for longer lives, for keener
minds, for more energy to dive deeper.
Or perchance, souls have no faces, no masks,
no mysterious sets of eyes. Souls are energy
fields each of us leaves behind that powers
a new generation, thoroughfares for their
imaginations and dreams and music.
If you study eyes and you penetrate masks,
you might find the soul’s song and poetry,
another set of eyes presents a drama, while
a third might offer a full symphony,
and all souls starting a new chapter in life.
Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1963-65) is a poet, fiction writer, and retired professor living in Arlington, Texas. He has taught in both Nigeria and China, as well as several colleges in the U.S. He has published ten books on African and Asian nations, and three books of poetry. Tony’s book The Mind Dancing, a collection of his poems related to his experiences in China, won the 2010 Award Peace Corps Writer Award for Poetry.