Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Master of Disguises"

by Charles Simic

Surely he walks among us unrecognized:
Some barber, store clerk, delivery man,
Pharmacist, hairdresser, bodybuilder,
Exotic dancer, gem cutter, dog walker,
The blind beggar singing, Oh Lord, remember me,

Some window decorator starting a fake fire
In a fake fireplace while mother and father watch
From the couch with their frozen smiles
As the street empties and the time comes
For the undertaker and the last waiter to head home.

O homeless old man, standing in a doorway
With your face half hidden,
I wouldn’t even rule out the black cat crossing the street,
The bare light bulb swinging on a wire
In a subway tunnel as the train comes to a stop.


Who is this master of disguises, who could walk among people incognito? 

As a smorgasbord of workers, from a barber to a dog walker? Or even as the lowest of beings, someone who begs for food? And much wretched than this, blind into the bargain? But who, still, sings to some Lord, entreating him to “remember me”? 

Or, could the litany of workers be refering to the “us”?

These days if a contemporary poet writes in an archaic way - ‘Oh Lord’ or ‘O homeless old man’ - you’d cringe, if you know your poetry. But in this poem though, Simic has an agenda for using such a trite method. Those words are meant to jolt one into recalling stories of the times in biblical Jerusalem, when Jesus walked the streets (“he walks among us”), among the sick and the blind, touching and curing.

In these modern times people sometimes forget such stories, because we depend on some “window decorator” to make things up to look real. It’s all “fake fire” and “fake fireplace” – note the f alliteration - like in movies. It’s all posing, anyway (“From the couch with their frozen smiles”).

There might be real life out there, albeit stark, like the blind beggar or the homeless old man. The respectable, poseur, family (“mother and father”) could “watch” but they would not be wary of or actually see it. Like that couple, when “the street empties”, the worker who services the dead (“undertaker”) and the other the living (“waiter”) just “head home” – they stop acting their roles.

People are all leery and superstitious (“the black cat crossing the street”) and imagine some bleak scenario (“The bare light bulb swinging on a wire”). Notice the near-alliterative parallelism of b-l-b in “bare light bulb” here and in “blind beggar” in stanza one. This reminds us of the beggar’s supplication in stanza one, and is preparatory to the next line in the last stanza, which imports the biblical train: “the train comes to a stop”. But are people getting on it, to be brought to an enlightened state?

This poem is published in the November 24, 2008 issue of The New Yorker.

Last year the poet Charles Simic received the Wallace Stevens Award by the Academy of American Poets. He has been teaching at the University of New Hampshire since 1973, as Emeritus Professor.

His eighteen book of poetry is That Little Something, published this year by Harcourt in the US.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

"Ode to the Moon"

How lovely when a piece of poetry surprises us by appearing in a place where we wouldn't expect to find it.

This poem was "on the menu", so to speak at Ketut Suardana and Janet de Deefe's Casa Luna restaurant in Ubud, Bali. Janet as many as you will know is also the director of the Ubud Writer's and Readers Festival, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that she tries to slip a little poetry into her customers' lives. (Poetry lovers who are also foodies can slip over here to try out one of her delicious recipes.)

The poem above is by Tabish Khair, an Indian poet who now lives in Denmark. I found it particularly magical, reading it on a beautiful Bali night, looking out onto the landcape of hills and trees.

For all that the poem evokes a night landcape of great beauty, there is a mood of melancholy.

The poem reminds me, in terms of its structure, though not its form, of the Malay pantun, with references first of all to the natural world, followed by a more personal reflection in the final two lines.

Word choices surprise - "a stab of moon" - describes perhaps a very new moon, scarcely giving any light. The word stab also has an edge of violence to it, and perhaps this idea of struggle is reflected too in the beautiful image of light being "tangled" in the trees.

The whole poem turns at the end with the contrast between aloneness and loneliness. Aloneness is (to some of us at least, myself included!) a good thing. We find peace and perhaps our inspiration in solitude. Loneliness on the other hand is painful. We don't want to be alone.

The speaker in the poem is probably taking a night walk by the river, at first content with his own company but later realising that he is missing the company of others (or perhaps aching for that one very special person).

I am touched by the simplicity of this poem. It's almost a Chinese brush painting. It feels like a haiku. A tiny true moment in someone's life that we all instinctively understand from our own.

(My apologies for not being on this blog for a very long time - I've been a disorganised and dissipated blob and have to discipline myself to keep even my own blog afloat. Still I will be back and posting some reviews of poetry books that have been sitting on my desk for far too long.)

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Monday, November 10, 2008

"The Barman's Fantasy"

Gay bar in England

by John McCullough

4 am and the big mouths are scrapping
with spluttered innuendoes.

My best reply’s deadpan: a thrust scoop,
the rattle of ice in the bucket –

scant relief for tongues made sour
by thoughts of desolate flats.

But the black tranny with her constellation
of diamante hasn’t finished,

stares into a Carling’s brassy depths
and finds, she announces, two ghosts

both rent, in fifties leather, jerking off
to the bleeps of the fruit machine.

All gas. She’s no more psychic
than sober but, locking up, it’s a vision

I can’t escape when on the nudge buttons
there’s a glimmer from something

that’s not quite soap, that can’t be
but for one long second is,

the two of them achingly real,
lording it up as they cuddle,

slower now, through stale smoke
and airborne specks of crisps

while I turn the key
and quietly enter moonlight.

© 2008, John McCullough
From the lives of ghosts
published by tall-lighthouse, London, 2008

The poet here, John McCullough, is writing about the fantasy(?) of a barman. Not knowing who this particular poet is, you’d only realise this barman works in a gay bar when you read and trip upon “ the black tranny with her constellation/of diamante” .

The barman, we can guess, has worked in that bar for so long that he’s jaded, he’s seen it all, and he’s looking forward to “turn the key/ and quietly enter moonlight”, to go back home, probably back to a place much like some of his customers’ “desolate flats”.

This is not any “scant relief” after the bar clientele he has to put up with. He’s so fagged out by all of them that he doesn’t even bother to see or remember faces. He visualises only their “big mouths”, as they disagree over something (“scrapping”) and make drunken bitchy connotations (“with spluttered innuendoes”).

Talking about “innuendoes”, there are some sexual ones here, like “big mouths”,” thrust”, “scant relief”, “tongues”, ”nudge buttons”. Can one even include “brassy depths”, if one pictures you-know-what rings and other metallic paraphernalia. The most obvious is, of course, “jerking off”. Instead of counting all the rest, one by one, suffice it to say that every stanza has one. The “fruit” in “fruit machine” is obviously deprecative of gays, from a straight point of view, and taken with the noun it’s qualifying, it can imply the mechanical or ephemeral quality of gay sexual encounters, also from a straight’s view.

The barman probably gets harried nightly, for advice, for responses, so much so that he doesn’t feel anything now for his customers or their “thoughts of desolate flats”. He replies “deadpan” and just does his job (“a thrust scoop,/the rattle of ice in the bucket”) – dead cold, that.

These customers find relief, however “scant”, in drunkenness, in bad behaviour, in proud, exhibitionist, public display of intimacy (“lording it up as they cuddle”); and, like the black transvestite, in a bit of Judy Garland-ish glamour (“her constellation/of diamante”).

There is another fantasy here which is not the barman’s. The tranny fantasises over rough trade (“two ghosts/ both rent, in fifties leather, jerking off/ to the bleeps of the fruit machine.”).

Our barman dismisses all this as “All gas”. But, really, it’s he who is dreaming about something like the tranny’s fantasy.

But what is the “vision” he sees in stanza seven, that he can’t escape, when in stanzas eight and nine, he catches “a glimmer from something/ that’s not quite soap, that can’t be/ but for one long second is”? He thinks, no, but it, finally, is. Well, I let you figure out how something wet and gleaming on a “nudge button” could look like foam from soap.

Stanza ten, with “the two of them achingly real”, is the vision. He yearns for something “achingly real”, like two people, men, obviously, cuddling; not something insubstantial (“slower now, through stale smoke/ and airborne specks of crisps”).

Something, say, romantic? : “and quietly enter moonlight.”

About the poet:
John McCullough is an up and coming young poet, born in 1978 in Watford, England, educated in University of East Anglia in English and Creative Writing, and in the University of Sussex with an MA in Sexual Dissidence. He even has a PHD on Shakespeare and friendship. He has written for The Rialto, The Guardian, London Magazine, Ambit,Magma, Staple and Chroma. He’s actively involved in the Brighton literary scene. His latest collection the lives of ghosts is published by tall-lighthouse, London, in 2008.

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