Melancholia — Robert Nelson



Take a look at my face and examine the joy

that my costume expresses and actions employ.

I have trouble disguising my world-weary frown

which is etched in the mask of an obsolete clown.

My career was to laugh and encourage delight

by an abject grotesqueness that also brings fright.

I’m eternally twisted, distorted and morphed

with extravagant pride in what ought to be dwarfed;

I’m enormous and tiny, a knave beyond scale

who makes light of the tragic or sorrowful tale

but who then inexplicably waxes morose

when the story is happy or tender or close.

My ontology crumbles in limp contradictions

that romance the soul in illogical fictions.

I liken my station to death. It’s the part

corresponding the best to my desolate heart;

because death, although charged with a murderous task

is constrained to assume a lugubrious mask.

You can never make eye-contact, never set eyes

on the figment of death in its morbid disguise.

It’s a lean and absurd euphemistic conceit

that our curious eyes never candidly meet;

it’s impossible ever to know than by dying.

The people who claim an encounter are lying.

Inscrutable death, it is you who I’ll be.

That unknowable thing at the end, that is me.


Who am I underneath this inscrutable mask,

a disguise for deflecting whatever you ask?

Is it I, the original person whose face

these deceptive unnatural layers displace?

Or perhaps is it he, the old man whom you see

whose theatrical pathos is mimicked by me?

My persona is doubled and folds your surmises

in doubtful and cryptic equivocal guises.

Who speaks in your mind when I cast you a gaze

or I mutter my hardships in taciturn ways?

Irrespective of who might inhabit this gown

the combined institution is only a clown;

it amalgamates both of us, youth and a codger,

a derelict tramp or a whimsical lodger,

a one who is kitted bizarrely for show

and who travels in places where vagabonds go.

I’m a hobo of dreams. I am hope’s bricoleur.

I’m a scrounger of jokes. I’m regret’s connoisseur.

I’m a salesman of fun that attracts no belief.

I’m a happy purveyor of clandestine grief.

Let my sorrows deride these disguises of joy

because sadness is passive but chortles destroy.


For as long as you’ve lived you’ve suppressed your despair

to preserve the illusion of fondness and care

to pretend that the world has an end like a joke

that’s relayed by a clown in a luminous cloak,

when in fact there’s a cavernous gulf or ravine

that belittles your guts to the core of your spleen.

So you too have adapted to flatten your frown

And adopt the duplicitous smile of a clown.

You consult with your psyche and note the abyss

and the rickety bridge that connects you with bliss.

What commends itself now but dissimulate well

to avoid the conclusion of plunging to hell?

But if that is your footing in hedging the fall

you’re aware of the absence of railing or wall.

At the precipice laughter will never avail.

It’s the verge where encouraging sentiments fail.

It’s the chasm that drains your resilience away,

enervation that burdens the length of the day.

If you tumble, your consciousness ceases to think.

There’s no limit to which you are destined to sink.

O to languish and relish the platform below

and to settle the gap with the grounds that you know!

To be reconciled, that is our last aspiration:

to tread in the void and feel firm affirmation!


The unknown is my element. Nobody knows

the caprice that my get-up will never disclose.

My inscrutable face, although kind and benign,

is without a reliable meaningful sign;

and in this, I resemble the riddle of death

that we only discern with our ultimate breath.

Even then, it’s unknown, because how do I know

where my fondest relations with others will go?

Never mind what is death in the moment of dying.

That’s morbidly kitsch and impiously prying.

I’m talking of death in the sense that one’s dead

and the subject surpasses the moment of dread.

The relations with others don’t suddenly die

in the moment that passes your consciousness by.

All the others hang on. They relate to you still.

There are promises, vows that they want to fulfill;

they continue to dream and unconsciously speak:

it’s your love and esteem that they desperately seek.

The relation intensifies, heightened, of course,

by finality’s trigger to endless remorse.

Every moment suggests a frustrated review

that is filled with regret and irreparable rue.

But although you take stock that it’s bound to occur

there is nothing to which your surmise can refer.

You’re alive and these almost predicted reactions

are only conjecture and idle abstractions.

In fact, you don’t know. What will happen will be

but who knows at what time or what kind or degree?

There’s a conference of sighs, a symposium of tears

that’s replete with anxiety, sadness and fears;

but you’ll never find out. Both the joy and the moan

are a part of my element: me, the unknown!


Authenticity! Where did it go? If I hide

can I claim it more fully and deeply inside?

If it isn’t myself, can I look from outside

and observe where my qualities really reside?

If the pronoun of ‘me’ is exchanged for a noun

and I calmly convert myself into a clown

I take stock of my mask as a wily convention

that tactically adds to my self-comprehension.

I realize how much in the house and the town

is a mask like the one that is worn by a clown,

how we juggle our humour and gladly pretend

how we’re happy to tryst with a cousin or friend;

we dissimulate pleasure and hence get along

even though by the inside the outside is wrong.

We make out that the chocolate or shopping is great

where in other regards they’re the things that we hate.

Yet it isn’t a lie or dishonest; it’s just

that our natures are built to adapt and adjust,

to move sideways, rotate, to go up and go down

and adopt the chameleon cheer of a clown.

It is needed wherever your promenades go.

It’s the guile that the clown and philosopher know.

So in knowing this mask I might thus understand

how organic identities shrink and expand,

how the soul may be relative, swell and contract

as the context advises to add or subtract;

and from here, I can see the completest extension

that stretches the powers of witty invention:

the last adaptation, the ultimate breath:

it’s the mask that contains me to countenance death.


If you study me carefully, what do you see?

There’s a clown and a person beneath who is me.

But there’s someone beyond us, autonomous, free,

who constructs enigmatic relations of three.

It’s the person who looks, the photographer, you,

who directs and interprets the things that we do.

This interpreter then has a role in the scene

that determines what is, what will be and has been.

She’s the mother of vision, a one with ideas

that might temper and trump my ephemeral fears.

She’s an organ of projects and plans and invention

exceeding the clown’s and my own comprehension.

She knows how to know where her knowledge cuts out

and predicts in advance what its theme is about.

This lenticular oracle sees in the dark

to transform what is vague into something that’s stark

or whatever is fixed she unties till it’s loose

to uncover its lost metaphorical use.

This creative maternal photographer lives

by the generous virtual life that she gives;

but as what she creates can transcend her mortality

sadly, she cannot outrun that finality;

she, as a person, cuts out at the end

by a logic that no one can ever transcend.

It’s too much to absorb. I recede and look down

from my ponderous perch as a kind-hearted clown;

I consign my regard to the side and hold back

where I relegate fear and distress to the black.


Melancholia isn’t pathology. Why?

It’s the natural feeling of saying goodbye.

It’s an act that is wrong and unthinkably true.

There is nothing on earth that I’d rather not do.

To commit to those syllables tears me apart.

It’s a word like a hammer for breaking my heart.

I arrest its untimely impetuous falls

in its love of the anvil that chills and appals;

I resist preparation. It means to accept

what is baleful and never sufficiently wept.

I am anxious and try to control my distress

which is also a grief that I cannot suppress.

To have held my unhappiest sentiments down

with provisional solace by grace of a clown

is impossible; even the clown becomes sad

and reflects how my mood is contagious and mad.

But it isn’t on me that my anguish should dwell.

There are two who are forced into saying farewell:

there’s the person who stays and the one who departs.

It’s the hideous mirror for traumatized hearts;

it’s the shared dizzy-state of symmetrical grief,

a disease held in common to cripple relief.

When I plunge in this pool where my confidence drowns

and transcend the macabre grotesqueness of clowns,

I need only reflect on the hurt for the other

and wretched with sorrow say bye to a mother.
Robert Nelson,

October 2014