Review by Howard Rosenberg
MASTER OF DISGUISES
by Charles Simic
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
15 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10003
2010, 96 pp., $22.00
In Master of Disguises, Charles Simic’s first poetry book since ending his tenure as Poet Laureate, he continues a trend toward writing about the “dark side,” pushing it into the limelight while exposing its consequences.
In one “trend” poem, the “Old Soldier,” the speaker begins with “By the time I was five, / I had fought in hundreds of battles,” revealing that war occupied even his earliest thoughts. But given that war formed the foreground for Simic’s early life — he lived in Yugoslavia during the Second World War — those thoughts at that age are understandable. As Simic said in an interview in The Cortland Review (August 1998), the “Germans and the Allies took turns dropping bombs on my head while I played with my collection of lead soldiers on the floor.”
Then, the scene shifts to “after the bombing raid” — a raid unmentioned to that point — his mother leading him “into the garden” where he swats at flies with a toy sword, aware of a nearby cat “whose tail I wanted to pull.” But that moment of escape quickly fades into the final stanza, where the mood changes and the war returns:
All I needed was a horse to ride,
Like the one hitched to a hearse,
Outside a pile of rubble,
Waiting with its head lowered
For them to finish loading the coffins.
That volta-like shift in “Old Soldier” magnifies the poem’s impact. It’s not just a poem about a boy; it’s a poem about the outer context that shapes the boy’s life. Simic’s voice is a warning of the way war alters lives, a reminder that it’s impossible to isolate ourselves within our own worlds. No matter how pleasant they may be at times, they can’t fully protect us from the world without.
When I was young, my parents never took me to a relative’s funeral, never allowed me to experience that part of life. As a result, funerals I’ve attended as an adult have affected me more than I think they would have had I not been isolated from them when young.
The “Old Soldier” reminded me of a previously published war poem Simic wrote, “The Big War,” a piece in which the speaker leads an army of soldiers made of clay. In its opening, he also treats war like a game: “We played war during the war.” It amazes me how during a time when war raged around him, “playing” war gave Simic pleasure, something he addresses in an interview published in the Spring 2005 issue of The Paris Review. When told on May 9, 1945 — which happened to be his seventh birthday — that the Second World War had ended, “apparently I looked at them puzzled and said, ‘Now there won’t be any more fun!’”
Both war — and coffins — reappear in “The Sparrow,” a poem written in response to “the current wars.”
There’ll be plenty of business
For those making bombs,
Uniforms and hospital beds,
And, of course, coffins.
In the above stanza, the repetition of the “b” and “c” sounds binds the lines, enhancing the stanza’s somber, almost satirical, tone.
The poem takes a sharp turn in its final stanza. The speaker shifts his attention to a sparrow “hopping in the yard,” concluding the poem with this political commentary:
If our president is right,
You and I may be on crutches
Next time you pay us a visit.
Besides communicating his political opinions in Master of Disguises, Simic also shares his social concerns. In “The Invisible One,” the first of the book’s 52 poems, he focuses attention on loneliness and separation, writing about a person so immersed in his own problems that he isolates himself from the outer world.
The three-stanza poem begins with this quatrain:
You read about a child
Kept for years in a closet
By his crazy parents
On a street you walked often.
Its simple, yet engaging language, grabbed my attention and propelled me into the second stanza:
Busy with your own troubles,
You saw little, heard nothing
Of what was said around you,
As you made your way home
Its wording reminded me of how isolated our society is becoming. Recently, sitting on a subway train traveling from Manhattan to Brooklyn, my fellow passengers seemed to seal themselves within their own cocoon, a shell that separated them from those they neither knew nor wanted to. I, too, sought to conceal myself, seeing “little,” hearing less, never glancing at a fellow passenger long enough to draw his or her attention.
In the third and final stanza, the action returns to the “street”:
Past loving young couples
Carrying flowers and groceries,
Pushing baby carriages,
Hanging back to scold a dog.
Each line contains an “ing” word which, coupled with the repetition of the “hard sounds,” the plosives (found in words such as “push,” “couples,” “groceries,” “baby,” and “dog”), tightens the stanza’s structure and provides the mortar that cements together the lines.
In another poem of three quatrains, “The Elusive Something,” Simic again addresses the issue of separation. It begins with sights and smells:
Was it in the smell of freshly baked bread
That came out to meet me in the street?
The face of a girl carrying a white dress
For the cleaners with her eyes half closed?
By personifying the bread’s aroma, Simic’s words caused me to pause; the unique way in which he described the sensory experience effected an image that filled my mind. And every time I return to those lines, the image also returns. It’s a very pleasant association.
More sights lead into the third stanza’s final line — “And found myself alone on a busy street” — the poem ending with this stanza:
I didn’t recognize, feeling like someone
Out for the first time after a long illness
Who sees the world with his heart,
Then hurries home to forget how it felt.
Its last five lines contain one of the most powerful messages I’ve ever read in a poem, a message its last line sealed in my memory. Too often, whenever I’ve “seen” the world with my heart, it has caused suffering. But rather than facing it, I’ve usually sought to shut it out. The epitome of that was on September 11, 2001. The terror of the event overwhelmed the sympathy welling in my heart, a horror still difficult for both my mind and eyes to view.
Simic’s words in “The Invisible One” and “The Elusive Something” continue to resonate both in my heart and mind, and though those two poems are about separation, they have effected “collaboration” between us.
The book’s poems pave a path that Simic didn’t detour from until the second-to-last poem, a path filled with words about war, death, loss, doom, and loneliness. But then, in that next-to-last poem, “The Invisible,” the book’s only multi-page poem, both style and substance shift. In its eleven stanza-groupings, each headed by a Roman numeral, Simic journeys further into surrealism.
It first stanza begins with one of the book’s best first lines — “It was always here.” — and follows it with these:
It vast terrors concealed
By this costume party
Of flowers and birds
And children playing in the garden.
This stanza’s metaphor and imagery elevates this poem: it was thought-provoking, planting seeds in my imagination that I enjoyed watering.
The book ends with a poem that’s possibly its shortest, yet probably its most poignant. Titled “And Who Are You, Sir?,” a question whose asker is left to each reader’s imagination, the poem is wedged into 36 words which address the philosophical issue of whether G-d exists. Its speaker refers to himself as “just a shuffling old man” and bemoans that a superior being “hasn’t spoken to me once,” a being who dwells “On some high mountain meadow / In the long summer dusk.” Yet despite his concern, he retains hope. I hope that, in his future, Simic writes more poems like this one.
In retrospect, the man who’s referred to himself as a “cheerful pessimist” succeeds again in demonstrating his ability to condense meaning without obscuring it, to empower his poems with paradox, and to mesh seamlessly the real and imagined. And though many of the poems in Master of Disguises continue a style trend, they are also verbal tightropes off which a reader rarely falls, tightropes that demand — and deserve — a reader’s complete attention.
Howard Rosenberg has written articles for both magazines and newspapers, including the Philadelphia Daily News. He has had poems published in Poetica and Vanguard, and a poetry book review appeared in Rattle. His poem, “Stetter to Sheffield to Matcovich,” was selected by Spitball: The Literary Baseball Magazine as its “Baseball Poem of the Month” for July 2010. He teaches writing at a two-year college in New Jersey.