The Self-Made Man (1st prize: 2016 competition)

after The Abominable Dr Phibes

Once you’ve redone your face –

sat before the bloody canvas

flinching under glass,

stitched the quilt of jowls,

broken in the nose,

napkinned the ears,

working only from memory

– and worn it to church, worn it

like a carnival mask,

it’s hard to know where the making ends,

hard to believe

in permanence of any kind.

And once you’ve learned to mimic

the creak-wind of your own voice –

chiselled and sanded the vowels,

counted the stops,

finetuned the range –

you find the need to speak at all

is strangely faded.

A whisper will do.

And, well,

from there it’s natural as breath

to turn the town, the city, the world

on your secret lathe, to refuse

all hideousness,

fashion a brute organ

from the half-torn hulk of it,

and play the thing you’ve forged

until its music

drowns out the sea.

Anything can be wrecked or restored

by a stripping squall, by a storm

of minute and delicate jaws.

No need for books. You’re no Prospero,

just a joiner moonlighting as stage magician.

The girl you’ve sawn in two is only

halved like you

and the key that’s hidden

is hidden in the heart, and the heart

is being lowered ever downward.