The Art of Personas

Off with your head, my five-year-old recently told me when I said no to a second piece of dessert.


Though after I explained to her what that phrase meant, she looked at me in a slight panic and asked: But would it grow back?


My daughter, of course, picked that line up from the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, but it got me thinking about Emily Dickinson, who said, If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.


I’m not sure that poetry has ever left me feeling fully scalped, but I have always imagined my muses whispering, off with your mask!


Though after recently reading Robbie Cooper’s Alter Ego – a book that pairs photographs of people beside their avatars – I started wondering whether writing was more a process of taking masks off or putting them on.


Many of the pairings in Cooper’s book offer striking examples of contrast – gender, age, body-type – and fascinating commentary about what it means to feel like your true self is stuck inside the wrong body.


But many pairings also revealed a clear resemblance between the person and the avatar – with the pixelated figures offering just a little more chisel and curve.


And as I looked at those photos, I couldn’t help but wonder if my writing voice was simply a literary version of an avatar – the me that’s me but not really me – whose mind is slightly more chiseled, whose logic is just a wee bit curvier.


How often I sit at my desk in the dark, lost in a reverie, contemplating this world with great understanding and empathy.


And then the sun rises, and we’re suddenly late for work, and my five-year-old spills milk all over her new shirt and a very different face emerges.


I sometimes wonder if one day, when my daughters are older, they will read my poems and think that they are finally seeing my truest face.


Or whether they’ll think: Where was this witty, thoughtful man when we used sharpies to measure our stuffed animals against the kitchen wall?


I know that there is no such thing as the “true me.” We are large, Whitman reminds us, and contain multitudes.


But sometimes, particularly in the early stages of drafting, I worry that if my poems were to ever meet me, it would play out like that pivotal scene in Star Wars where Darth Vader announces to Luke, I am your father.


Those drafts would stare at me incredulously, shaking and holding on to an amputated line. No, no, they would say. That’s impossible. And then they would dive into some deep and dark abyss just to escape from me.


And all I can do is hope that one day they will return and approach me with great tenderness as they lift my mask and glimpse my wounded face – knowing that our poems must witness our rawest vulnerabilities if they’re going to run off and save this world from itself.

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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

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by Ben Berman


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