A pliable cancer
blithely swept across faces
of noblewomen
smearing ignorant flesh
with stark virginity;
painting untruths
with wide brushstrokes
of steely white lead;
make-up poison
leeched into skin:
a macabre osmosis.

A sign of wealth
status, prestige;
a white painted face
meant times indoors
while hired help tilled land.

Venetian ceruse:
the most expensive cosmetic
hiding a price tag of jaded truth:
hair loss
(high forehead:
Elizabethan beauty ideal)
skin defects (scarring/blemishes),
slow poisoning,
probably death.

Even Elizabeth I
allowed her visage to be cast,
framed by lily-white foreboding;
its application constant
to hide smallpox scars –
a fated fatality
lurked outside chamber doors
swaying on soundless steps
to a dowdy dirge
paving a route
to lay in state
at Westminster Abbey.

Symbolic of aristocracy
even donned by men;
many fell foul
of its spectral illusion.

The Countess of Coventry
died at 27: a devout user.

Isabella d’Este, suffered its pangs:
“smeared face”,
“dishonestly ugly”
“dishonestly made up”,
epithets ascribed her.

All victims of vanity.

Its alabaster sinews
tore deep,
clutching souls
stretching back —
to Roman times,
ancient Egypt (kohl) and Greece…

A smooth complexion
of piqued femininity,
with rouged cheeks/lips
strove as perfection;
hollow compliments
dribbled profusely
from adoring mouths:

“fair as snow”,
“bright as moonlight”

These echoey lost words
now encircle the dead;
corpses that are now far from “fair”
are trapped, buried tight
within shrouds of perpetual night.