Colin Pope

A History of Mirrors
June 23, 2024 Pope Colin

A History of Mirrors


We’ve accidentally collided with something real tonight
when beer-bellied Chuck spins to me on his stool,
weeping openly now, and asks, “Am I just
not good-looking?” Shit, I don’t know, I say,
which is the real, boardwalk-bench-at-dawn-truth,


though I suspect those of us who circumnavigate
the four-letter word for “not good-looking”
already know the answer: I can see myself still, poised
in the towel-and-tubesock-strewn family bathroom,
inspecting the acne vulgaris peppered at my temples,
my nose-bridge, squeezing, on the verge of tears
at the broken tool my skin figured within
the architecture of “a good life.” So it’s to be


a bad life, I thought. So this is how we begin plotting
the number of paces toward the promised X-spot
of the grave. My god, the illogical hope
I carried to school every day, somehow dreaming
it could be me instead of Luke Hammond with a palm
massaging Erica’s figure-skater thigh in the back row
of homeroom, my speckles oftentimes coordinates
in blood yet constellating my forehead. Of course


I learned ugliness isn’t necessarily closer than beauty
to death, that when Theodosius examined
his porcelain cheek in his polished-bronze looking glass
and recommended to those poor pizza-faced Romans
of the 4th century the palliative of waiting
for a shooting star before performing their ablutions—
blebs incited to “fall away like meteorites,” he said—
his intent wasn’t clearcutting their self-esteem
with more dismissive, astronomic snake oil; it’s simply


that those who are uncursed recognize only
the calm surface of their own pools, undisturbed
by scabby pebble or rumpled leaf-boat:
they can’t imagine anything less than themselves.
Not malice, not suicide-inducing dispassion, merely


that the absence of blight means the elm
looks skyward, never considers tearing itself whole
from the earth, root by screaming root. But
the question on the bar is: what is love
in the face of witnessing your own ruin?
Chuck sashays deftly from sullen to angry, eyeing
his unrequited grad-student crush as she dances
with another. He blames movie stars, blames me


for smiling, derides his DNA: he’s not ready yet.
He hasn’t acquired, through impotent rage and scars
and hurling the stupid vial of medicated coverup
at the laundry-room wall the inner life to swaddle
and bandage via creativity, hasn’t learned to fashion
from black velvet the patches of moons and stars


that those daring, smallpox-riddled ladies
of the Renaissance did, celebrating their trials
with a fad of applique makeup, an elegant concealment.
More kinship he may feel with the sub rosa guild
of 1400s Muranese glassmakers—inventors of our
modern-style mirror—in their pathological shyness,
their insomnia and depression in reaction to years
of alloying tin and mercury, a radiant,
neurotoxic backing. It certainly took me work to accept:


if you are ugly, you are ugly every day, forever.
That’s what object permanence does: after
my best friend’s funeral, I ended up in the bathroom,
pitted cheeks gone sallow, jaw dangling slack.
I gazed there into my own eyes like a fool
trying to see myself back. What do I mean? I asked.
Is this the big magic they claim distinguishes us


from the dumb beasts? To decipher without voice
this assemblage of puttied “self,” like a god? Was I ever
real? I said this aloud. When the Judeo-Christians
cover their mirrors for shiva or wake, one reason:
since the linkage between a living form and His image
is severed, and since said form is built in said image,
it’s a blasphemy to remind the deity of self-perception.
I don’t get it either. A better reason: don’t be a prick,


preening while someone’s panicked soul claws
to get back inside its firmament. That said, I also suspect
pretty people never think they’re anybody else since
their visages are encouraged to grow more real daily,
confirmed in the rainbow light of desire’s prisms:
a stranger’s overgracious smile, a folded napkin,


a phone number. In Mesoamerican high-society,
the Olmec elite wore stone mirrors as chest ornaments
so approaching strangers could clearly see how much
less they meant, how easily they could be manacled
and tossed into the sacrificial bog. We’re the peasants,
Chuck, our village burned, our pet sows clubbed


and upturned, and the armies of beauty will simply
roll onto the next hamlet after us, pillaging too
their granaries and heirlooms. It’s time to go.
Behind the bar shelves, the glass runs full-length,
and one man rests now in the arms of the other, forlorn,
they both stood and rotating in small, uncertain circles.
We’re not dancing, no. We’re skittering into the cracks
between tiles as the door swings shut, after once again
the last pair of easy people abandons us to the broom,
the quiet after the last song, the jukebox’s rude glow.

Colin Pope is Assistant Director of Creative Writing at Northwestern University. He is the author of Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral (Tolsun Books, 2019) and Prayer Book for the New Heretic (NYQ Books, 2023). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day, Best New Poets, Slate, AGNI, and Pleiades, among others. He lives in Chicago and works on the editorial boards of Nimrod International, RHINO, and TriQuarterly.