A Review of Charles Simic’s Master of Disguises

Lauren Goodwin Slaughter


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York, NY, 2010. 96 pages. $22.00.

Just as Dickinson warns that the truth must be told “slant” so as to not “dazzle” us “blind,” in his new collection Charles Simic suggests that we need disguises to shield ourselves from the depth of our own overwhelming humanity. In his typically elusive, straightforward writing, Simic conjures variations on this theme throughout the four sections of his fluid and organized book. In the title poem his “Master of Disguises” is a figure who “walks among us unrecognized.” It could be anyone: “Some barber, store clerk, delivery man, / Pharmacist, hairdresser, body builder, / Exotic dancer, gem cutter, dog walker,” et cetera. But more than a grim reaper character—for this late collection is certainly preoccupied with mortality, perhaps the poet’s own—Simic’s “Master of Disguises” is ultimately life itself, for nothing conceals the certainty of our deaths more convincingly than our own lives.

Still, our lives are ordinary; we’re all just “Some barber” or “store clerk.” And, most of the time, we see with tunnel vision, so that mundane events obscure world affairs. In the poem “Nineteen-Thirty-Eight” the speaker reminisces:

That was the year the Nazis marched into Vienna,

Superman made his debut in Action Comics,

Stalin was killing off his fellow revolutionaries,

The first Dairy Queen opened in Kankakee, Ill.,

As I lay in my crib peeing in my diapers.

The poem continues its catalog of important events as “people worried the world was about to end,” but all the infant knows is his mother as she uncovers her concealed breast: “I watched my mother / Take a breast out of her blue robe and come closer.” Later in the poem, “A fish believed to have been extinct for seventy million years / Came up in a fishing net off the coast of South Africa.” Indeed, the net separating life from death can be sheer enough to see through.

Anxieties over matters of faith are necessarily at the heart of Master of Disguises. The poem “Preachers Warn” begins:

This peaceful world of ours is ready for destruction—

And still the sun shines, the sparrows come

Each morning to the bakery for crumbs.

It is not just the preachers’ message that comes into question, but also the true intentions of the sun and of sparrows whose survival relies on deceit. The poem’s final image depicts a “handsome boy” who, as he says goodbye to his grandmother, pedals off on his bike through a busy street:

He rides it casually through the heavy traffic

His white shirttails fluttering behind him

Long after everyone else has come to a sudden stop.

The boy’s faith in surviving his joyride can be casual only because of others. “Everyone else” stopped this time; next time, they might not. Most affecting is Simic’s exploration of the transitory nature of innocence; though we are most alive, most ourselves, in the unexamined moment, we learn to cover such lucid spells with things like “canned laughter” (“Driving Home”). In “Nancy Jane” the speaker listens to a “story” so “sad” “it made everyone laugh.” Thus, we become masters of our own disguises, a sentiment “The Elusive Something” exquisitely captures by positing the many things the “elusive something” could be masquerading as, finally wondering:

Or was it the woman pushing a baby carriage

About to turn the corner?
I ran after,

As if the little one lying in it was known to me,

And found myself alone on a busy street

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.

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