Here before you is the very basin
Don Quixote took to be Mambrino's
golden helmet, said the guide,
holding up a low, wide, coppery-yellow bowl.
Lacking a matching brass chin beaver
or a tempered steel nose cone,
missing even the comic cardboard visor
the old Don fixed to finish his initial morion,
the pot lid looked more like a woven Chinese sun hat
or pleached Tlingit head basket than any
European armor. Taken in, the guide
extended upside down a bowl,
a helmet rightside up, too wide
and shallow to protect a normal head,
where it would surely slide on hair or stick
to a parbald pate, though extracted
from a shaded pack and overturned
to make a simple cover from the sun
it would soothe and cool the skull,
then quickly turn into a baking pan,
further addling the wearer's brain.
Quixote, poet of illusion and overstatement,
has sworn an oath to regain this imaginary
object. Touring the provinces he sees
a brass bowl, which is after all a hat,
glinting in the relentless realistic sun,
takes it for a solar echo wherein
he hears his tingling fate ring large,
retrieves it, turns it upside down, and makes
it once again Mambrino's glorious helmet.
In Don Quixote, the guide said, you must imagine
(for none among us had read the whole big book)
the hero scares an ordinary barber
into dropping the battered basin,
fleeing his horse to hide who knows where
on the sun-baked Spanish plains of imagination.
(In fact, the docent noted parenthetically,
Cervantes' father was a surgeon-barber
and not a great success.) In the story,
the scrawny ersatz man-at-arms believes
the vagrant surgeon is a truly phony knight,
a butcher of infected limbs and dusty hair
by way of humble masquerade,
a lapsed crusader who has grabbed
the helmet from Rinaldo in Orlando Furioso.
The barber himself gave the Don the clue
when he popped the pan across his head
to save his felt sombrero from the rain.
Quixote knew the helmet was a razor's bowl,
for it had flopped against a nag's flank
as the barber rode to shave and cut
the hair of distant countrymen. Dented
and pitted from leechings, skin scrapes
and bloodier tonsorial adventures,
had it not been gold, it would have seemed
a minor moon instead of a sunny
mismatch for the lunar grey
of the rest of his antique steel equipage.
But all the same it was the product of enchantment
on Mambrino's literary helmet, a fact
that contradicts the old man's romancing
and makes his donning the upturned pan
verify he understood reality.
There is, the guide informs, a style
of helmet called a basinet.
So we're double-deep in illusion,
looking at this brass pot rinsed clean
of blood and vestiges of gruesome surgeries,
swabbed free of beard stubs like berry seeds
in a porcelain bowl licked clean of cream,
rid of all hairs, wayward or straight,
scoured with ashes and salt until
it shone inside and out in the sun,
a plain bowl, a magic helmet, turned
to fit a cosmic, comic head
in honor of the helmet's deeper dignity.
A barber's well-used bowl. Quixote's hat.
Cervantes' bright brain, razor wit.
Now this dented object, almost palpable,
rests upside down and rightside up
with King Tut's glassy golden visage
and the hammer-flattened face
of Trojan Agamemnon, tokens of a world
we know and yet will never know.
t h o m a s d a v i d l i s k
r a l e i g h, n o r t h c a r o l i n a
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