I still have a trytophan hangover from the holiday weekend. Or was it the Scotch? Nevertheless, this post is probably going to short-shrift Charles Simic (more than usual). I’m just so incredibly tired and at this moment, would welcome Simic’s “Master of Disguises,” the nebulous figure in his poem that appears in the November 24, 2008, issue of the New Yorker, to take me on his empty subway car and leave the single lightbulb hanging over the platform and all its trappings behind. 

This isn’t what has become the usual old-poet-with-mortality-concerns New Yorker poem. Simic has always plied in the dank, macabre, sub-basement of the poetic psyche and I’ve always gobbled it up. Yum! 

Apparently this stems from a rough childhood. No, this isn’t the pop-Psych 101 “rough childhood” that became vogue in the ’80s and ’90s where you would like awake in bed and tell your Ivy League one-night stand that you (gasp!) or were (gasped!) and then your mayfly lover did the same. And, as artists, we had to plumb those experiences and become terrific creatures who were able to move beyond the pain! At the risk of sounding like Yogi Berra: If there wasn’t something wrong with you, there was something wrong with you. Thankfully, we’ve become a medicated nation and have moved on.

Simic grew up in Belgrade, Yugoslovia, during the Second World War and went from the horrors of the Luftwaffe to the horrors of Chicago winters when he emigrated at the age of 15 with nary a lick of English on his Slavic tongue. (It never ceases to amaze me when non-native speakers not only become proficient in another language, but use it to create first-class art: Nabokov (Russian to English) and Beckett (English to French) come to mind.) It never ceases to amaze me that people assume that there is a direct link between one’s childhood experiences and the kind of art they create; Simic could have grown up in a sylvan wood surrounded by fluffy bunnies and still work the spooky terrain of the underworld.

Simic poems are like scratchy and grainy film noir and they tend to use the same materials: lots of shadows and shadowy figures; industrial-urban landscapes; lots of creatures who are not what they seem.

The interesting thing about “Master of Disguises” is that, at least for those familiar with Simic’s poetry, by the time you finish the first line you know the “he that walks among us unrecognized” is a death/devil figure. The title and the first line and you just know.

Also interesting is how this poem moves. Simic rattles off a litany of occupations: barber, gem cutter, dog walker, etc. that could contain this personage. That’s the first stanza. 

The Occupations for Death guidance counselor-adminisitered aptitude test list continues in the second stanza with “some window decorator” who then anchors the movement in the poem to his or her holiday window display with the fake, cozy living room scene with the creepy mannequins with their creepy smiles and the streets empty and become still “for the undertaker and the last waiter to head home.” We were conditioned, from the first stanza, that these two continue the list of occupations for the master of disguises but they’re separate, they’re their own beings working in tandem: the last waiter is going to a very different home and the undertaker will help him get there.

The third stanza is strange and it falls apart on me. There’s the double entendre but unlike, say, Richard Wilbur or Anthony Hecht where you can see how the separate pieces of string make up a neat rope of twine, this is a bunch of frayed comma-spliced threads piling up on the floor. It seems like “the homeless old man” with the half-hidden face is Simic’s Master of Disguises and that he’s addressing him (as indicated by the ejaculatory O that leads the sentence and stanza). But then there’s the business of the black cat crossing the street. Is that another possible disguise? I think so, yes.) What about the bare light bulb in the subway, another disguise or something else? (Something else, I think. Just a description, a metaphor for, you know, coming to a stop.) 

Simic is really good at clustering images and evoking a mood (usually a creepy one) and this poem certainly does that.

Further Reading

A Cortland Review interview.

The former U.S. Poet Laureate’s site.

The Lannan interview and reading.