Wednesday, January 31, 2007


For about five minutes early on the afternoon of Jan. 10, I suddenly felt the best I've felt in years -- unexpected and almost euphoric. Now that I've got that out of the way, I want to write a few words about love and masks.

Last year, I spent my birthday with the works of some writers I like. This year, when it comes around at the end of March, I'm going to spend it with all the people I've ever loved at the moment I loved them the most. (Love is on my mind since February -- the shortest and one of the coldest months of the year -- is the month set aside for that exquisite, Fellini-esque figment.)

Near my computer -- on the old thermostat that often controls the A/C in my magic castle -- I keep a small framed photo of a beautiful woman who can, when she wants, look rather icy to keep people at a distance. I used one photo of her on the front of my poetry chapbook "Jolene's Dragomon." In the one I keep near my computer, she looks almost like a different woman: younger, more vulnerable.

I am not in love with this young woman who lives half a world away. She is one of half a dozen or a dozen or hundreds of women I love, in a way, as people who interest me, hold my attention -- and that I want to explore in every way, to coax away the masks.

Somewhere in the boxes I packed away in my exile is a ceramic mask. I bought it years ago in New Orleans. I can see its color, a striking red that I understand is rare in such masks. In my hands, I can feel the smooth curves of the masks cheeks and lips and forehead, the coolness, and its only blemish. I know that small bits of the mask were painted white before it was fired, and that I used to -- because of the many stories it "tells" me -- hang it from a wall by a small leather strap.

I thought of these things after the phone rang twice at 4:30 a.m. today. I picked up the receiver and heard a dial tone. Probably some veiled soul reaching a wrong number at that vile hour. So, awake between 4:30 and the dawn of a cold day with rain and maybe sleet in the forecast, I improvised.

Twice in the dark, I played Amanda Shires' aching song "Hearts Are Breakin'". Then I played an early Joan Baez album, "Baez Sings Dylan," which begins, in that pure young voice from 1968, "my love she speaks like silence . . ."

Dawn didn't break, but seeped slowly into my bleary eyes as I thought of the Jim Harrison quote: "The dark side of the moon is merely dark and cold, and Jupiter and Saturn only distant flecks of brain hurled out before time was."

In the unwelcome light, I made a small chapel in the magic castle. The centerpiece is a foot-tall, garish ceramic sculpture of a Mexican saloon complete with phonograph player, bar and bartender, bottles behind the bar, two dancing couples, someone sitting on a toilet, and a demon wearing sunglasses communing with a bird on the roof. The altar also includes a miracle candle with Willie Nelson’s picture on it, an empty bottle of Il Bastardo wine, and a glass bottle that used to have chocolate milk in it but now is my bank slowly ebbing and flowing with loose change.

The magic castle, protected by the tiny brass dragon, is where I rest on the edge of the deep, ancient forest at the foot of the mythic mountain overlooking the endless sea on the other side. I have not seen the ghost in the dungeon for quite a while, although I still have an accidental photograph of it in the same frame as the huge moth I saw one day near the moat.

I do not recognize the ghost's face, so I do not know if I ever loved it. It will not be invited to my birthday party.