A Shrunken Head

John Levett

He's been stitched-up; two gummed, black-threaded eyes

Squint back across the decades in surprise

Through spiteful chinks of sunlight, acrid smoke,

Screwed-up against some wicked tribal joke.

His rictus has been sewn into a smile,

A tight-lipped dandy, puckered into style,

The clearing where his grisly fame began

Still broods beneath the kinks of wood-stained tan.

Flayed leather now,

his features smoked and cured,

His niche in culture gruesomely secured,

The needled grin is fixed, drawn back and set

Bone-dry in its reflective cabinet.

A hundred years ago he strayed alone

Towards this room of ritual skin and bone,

Believed in spirits, drank, was secretive

With knives and fish-hooks, dreamed his seed would live,

Sheathed his penis, sweated half the night

On invocations, prayed, prepared to fight,

And felt, perhaps, the moon's leaf-parted shine

Move up his legs and bathe his severed spine;

His head hacked off, half-baked into this face

That swings and grins inside its airless case.

Hung-up, he seems to twitch at each dropped word,

As if, although we whisper, he had heard,

And stares through us to what we cannot see,

Our unstitched smiles, their pale atrocity.