The Goat Mask

By Jeff Hoffman

leaked its way across the ocean
and ended hung from his ceiling,

its spidering horns draped at Christmas
with tinsel and mistletoe. He thinks

of her smooth face pocked in sweat
as she walks briskly through a market

of fruit stands, carcass meats, and planks
wound thick in colored cloth. The tall

women carrying on their heads their tall baskets,
and the women’s rainbow-clean frocks,

their weathered toes, their white teeth
he has seen in one thousand movies,

one thousand postcards that she sent
when they were still officially in love.

When he was a boy, he bought a copy
of Darwin’s journal detailing a voyage

to the Galapagos Islands. When he was a boy,
he lived for years in the magic of marine iguanas

and the soft and bloated bellies of penguins.
He wished himself into a private distance

and spent long hours planning the mechanics
of a trip he would take when he was older,

when his pockets had filled with money,
when others would watch him,

impressed with his pluck for adventure,
his disregard for danger. When his plane

touched down in Kinshasa, he felt for more
than a moment that he had not left America,

that the people washing in front of him
were not people at all. The feeling

that Africa itself had always been merely
an invention, and that he moved in it

as a character at the edge of a film strip—
the tree shapes, the people shapes

clicking by at 24 frames per second.
She poured him a glass of honey wine

that first night of his visit and everything
about them was gone. He knew it her first

careful sip. Months later, the goat mask arrived,
wrapped in newspaper, the newspaper shrouded

in a festive linen of geometric termites;
the termites now blanket his television

when he’s swaddled it for the night.
When he wakes to piss, the street lamp

erupts from the goat’s horns twisted shadows.
Sometimes he thinks he’s found inside himself

a tiny kick of courage. Sometimes he lifts a coin
from his pocket and silvers the clubbed hand

of a pleading girl-orphan in a vague country
of his own imagination: watch now the orphan’s eyes,

how they dance with the comforting claws
of a world he ciphers and does not touch.

Jeff Hoffman was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford from 2004 to 2006. His poems have appeared recently in The New Republic, Ploughshares, and Indiana Review.

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