Untitled (51)

Robin Robertson

for John Banville

Hello Hello Hello Hello
what shall we do today? Hello Today.

They come in procession: clown, princess,
scarecrow, ghost, a drift of the overgrown:
women in their institutional white socks
and black shoes, winter coats
over nighties, sheets, sack-dresses,
party hats, paper-bag masks
with eye-holes and straw,
hard plastic masks with white elastic:
cat, devil, crone.
They jostle, glitched and giggling,
holding hands, gripping their candy
and pocket-books, pennants and pinwheels.

I’ve got a boyfriend. He says I’m beautiful.
I told him you haven’t seen the pretty parts.

A little hot under the masks, but liking
their new friends, the ghosts and devils,
these tranced angels
with the fixed faces and the moving eyes.

Haunted by everything but knowledge
– which is despair – they walk the field:
the masks and sheets and costumes
free them from themselves.

I want to run away from here
but I don’t know how to run.

They gather acorns and beech-nuts
under the asylum trees, playing
Simon Says, running-on-the-spot.
They are innocent of the new one,
the one from outside, taking their pictures,
who saw the trees
crucified by camera-flash, the apples
browned to sweetbreads on the lawn.

Oh God, you’re cute. You’re too much.
Go ahead, dear. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

This thin one, the visitor
with the huge green eyes,
lop-sided grin and squeaky voice,
pushes in amongst them:

What’s wrong with her? a woman says,
pointing. What’s wrong with her?

She stands at the back, with a half-smile,
as the shutter goes. Home at last.

She thinks what they are all thinking:
Am I the only one born?

Between 1969 and 1971, Diane Arbus visited a number of ‘retarded schools’ in New Jersey, taking a series of photographs that would eventually be edited and published as Untitled (1995). The lines in italic are the recorded speech of some of the inmates, taken from Arbus’s working notebooks and correspondence (Revelations, 2003).