As Unreal as Real Can Be

Book cover
Master of Disguisesby By Charles SimicHoughton Mifflin Harcourt. 96p $22

The poems of Charles Simic, while not exactly lyrical (certainly not in the way the language, say, of Mary Oliver or Charles Wright is lyrical), nevertheless punctuate our experience of reading with the intensity and hurt of such deeply lyric works as the Anglo-Saxon “Seafarer” or Roethke’s songs from The Far Field. Yet their real connection is to the prose of writers like Heinrich Böll—inward, detailed, evocative and colored by a mid-20th-century European childhood—in Simic’s case, Yugoslavian. For example: “When she still knew how to make shadows speak/ By sitting with them a long time/ They talked about her handsome father/ His long absence, and how the quiet/ Would fill the house on snowy evenings.” One has the sense of having awakened in a high-ceilinged room near a quiet river, in a house where money has come and gone, where the styles of European fashion have been made trivial by cruelty and predatory greed.

In his latest collection, Master of Disguises—typically short poems of three or four stanzas, 12 to 20 lines long—we encounter striking images that suggest a time and a place, memory, a wary child’s sensibility and a weary adult’s dry humor. These memories come in quickly signaled glimpses, in dream-like images: “A dark little country store full of gravediggers’ children buying candy” (the plural gravediggers is the spot of color) or “We kept the gas oven lit to warm ourselves/ While mother cried and cried chopping onions/ And my one goldfish swam in a pickle jar.” These poems conjure relentless connections and associations, the mind integrating the tiny moment from the past and the flickering moment of the present.


Simic has chosen as an epigraph to this volume a line from Wallace Stevens’s “The Comedian as the Letter C,” a line that captures the attraction for Simic of the surreal and quirky: “Everything as unreal as real can be.” Simic’s sense of form has always favored the minimal, the tiny nub of a poem that squeaks when rubbed between your fingers, a poem that hints at play but names a minor tragedy maybe, or maybe not, the ambiguity of what it is we might be looking at, an ambiguity that must remain so, a lens that recognizes the irony and bitterness of history, delivered in a voice darkened yet hopeful: “like someone/ Out for the first time after a long illness/ Who sees the world with his heart.”

And then come the poems that are simply beautiful collections of sound and image. “Keep This to Yourself,” which could easily have been the title of a piece by William Stafford, is such a poem. It takes the light at the end of a summer day and dances us into that light, beginning by setting us somewhere among “country roads...that are empty.” These roads will hold the late light a little longer, surely just for the pleasure of the boy walking home from a game:

Whoever he is, he’ll have to hurry.

This lovely moment won’t last


The road before him lies white

Here and there under the dark


As if some mad girl in the neigh-


Had emptied her linen closet

And had been spreading her things

Over the soft late-summer dust.

The ease with which Simic presents this moment—“whoever he is,” “here and there,” “as if,” “spreading her things,” and the wholly unexpected closing word, “dust”—leads to a delicacy of feeling about the moment itself and a feather-light nostalgia for those barely glimpsed moments in our lives of simple, transient beauty. This is the art of Simic’s language—a momentary glimpse of the sea through an opening door, the color of a girl’s hair coming in through the snow.

The title poem, “Master of Disguises,” begins with this: “Surely, he walks among us unrecognized.” And Simic’s humanism is captured nicely in the possible forms “he” might take: “Some barber, store clerk, delivery man/ Pharmacist, hairdresser, bodybuilder/ Exotic dancer, gem cutter, dog walker/ The blind beggar singing, O Lord, remember me.” For Simic, of course, we have proven ourselves many times over capable of folly and wrong beyond imagination, of having created a history that Walter Benjamin describes as “a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.” And yet also for Simic there burns within us a lightness, a joy, a great and refreshing hope in what we have been given. The master of disguises might be “some window decorator,” might be a “homeless old man, standing in a doorway.” In fact, says the poet, “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.”

Simic’s poems continue to teach us, and Simic himself continues to listen. In the final poem of the volume he tells us this:

I’m just a shuffling old man


For a god

Who hasn’t spoken to me once.

The words make sentences and the sentences make poems and the poems make something that was not there before. The master of disguises engages us in an unexpected conversation before he wanders down a darkening street and around a near corner. Meanwhile, he has helped us catch something we must have already known, but forgotten. He has pointed to what we are.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 18, 2019

The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing.

Ron HansenJanuary 18, 2019
Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019