The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Carlos Cunha

Vanity: Surprised to Exist



Must how you look

Color how you think?



When he darts a glance

At his reflection,

It’s sometimes with the hope

That for once he’ll get to it

Before it slips behind

His subjectivity.



The narcissist plays

At trying to see himself

As other than how

He usually sees himself.



A common fallacy:

Thinking a physiognomy

Is intentional.



A personality can wear out

And cease to become you.



Judge by the way they move

Whether they have fully

Assumed their burdens.



He changes his appearance

To make of it a reflection

Of who he’d rather be:

Always someone

More perceptible to himself

Than himself.



Hair always coiffed,

Eyes behind ornate glasses,

Voice affected, high, sing-song,

Breath breathily altered,

Legs covered by stockings,

Nails painted with varnish,

Neck hung with jewelry.

An edifice to femininity,

Rebuilt from scratch each morning.

Leaving no real part of her showing.



She wanted to change.

She would stop drinking,

Lose weight, find a job.

She would make new friends,

Meet someone worth loving.

She would change so much

She would not recognize herself.

Which left her cold enough

To want a warming liquor.



He has altogether ceased

To be the person

He still resembles,

Although to others

This remains a secret.



With each acquaintance

We alter ourselves a little

To match the idea we think

That person has of us.

Yet we truly have no idea

Of what that idea truly is.



Fantastically dressed,

The eccentric’s embrace

Of illusion is ostentatious,

A confession, by overdose,

That the drug of illusion

No longer really works.

He’s on the verge of losing

His illusions about illusion.



As a child, he avoided

Visual promiscuity:

He didn’t want to see

Those he’d rather not be.

Only once he’d become

What he was going to be,

Was he free to open his eyes

To who was in the world,

Including who he’d become.



She was kept company

Only by her mirrors.



Oh, the excessive expressiveness

Of the face that has aged,

That has grown used to its uses

And so overdoes it each time.



Self-consciousness offends others.

Makes our faults seem worse,

And our feats less impressive.

But unconscious prowess we call grace,

And unconscious crime

Is not really a disgrace.



A very sensitive machine,

Responsive in its motions

To the most obscure

Flickers of the will.

So hard is it to master,

As to make seem godlike

Athletes, acrobats and dancers

Who consistently get the better of it:

The body.



An environment,

A world we furnish

By ourselves for ourselves.

When we venture

Into an alien place,

There is protection

In that cozy habitat:

The clothes we wear.



As he has grown older,

He has become a student

Of growing old, a critic

Both of battles against it

And of surrenders.



He thought, wrote and lived

Like a short man who betrays

To others his wish to be taller

By bobbing up as he walks,

Trying, with every step,

To reach for the height he aspires to,

But coming back down each time.



Vanity kept her

From wearing glasses,

And her uncorrected vision

Further protected

The vanity that kept her

From wearing glasses.



She knows that

To invite glances,

You have to behave

Like an object,

And an object

Cannot look back.



Yes, you are what is yours:

Your face, your memory, your arms, your heart.

But not all that is yours is you:

Your house, your wristwatch, your job, you car.

Yet vanity easily confuses the two,

Even allowing one to stand in place of the other.



They may not know it,

But what they see in me

Is superfluous to me.

I could lose it all

Without diminishing,

Although once again

They may not know it.



Trying to stay young

By taking on as a disguise,

The fleece of youth,

But always falling behind

When youth’s fleece changes

Which it does often and quickly,

As if by design, so as to expose

Undercover incursions

From aging wolves.



Our image of ourselves

Always lags behind

The image others see.



Becoming is the most extreme

Form of intimacy, the point at which

You turn into what you desire, at which

You will have ingested your dream.



He shies from the glances of others

Fearful of what they, in their objectivity,

Can see that he, in his subjectivity, cannot.

He may in time contrive to become repellent,

So that others will avert their gaze, too.



Though he lived alone,

He was a family man,

Over time the father

Of so many selves.



Whenever he caught a reflection of himself,

He was surprised by its detailed confirmation

Of his existence in the physical world.




CARLOS CUNHA's writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Seattle Review, Britain's Manchester Review and elsewhere. He is a past winner of the William Faulkner-William Wisdom writing contest in New Orleans, and Gulf Coast magazine's annual contest. Born in Portugal, he grew up in South Africa and lives in Florida, where he works as a copy editor for The New York Times International Weekly.



Previous | Next