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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