Book Review Master of Disguises by Charles Simic

by Matt Larrimore

Charles Simic’s 2010 book, Master of Disguises, was his first published after his 2007-2008 term as US Poet Laureate. In this his twentieth collection of poetry, his longtime followers will recognize the master’s hand at work. His odd sense of rhythm and subtle work with sound are accompanied by a weight of meaning that is readily apparent even when his exact meaning is not. For those new to Simic, this is not to say that his work is obtuse or vague. No, his poems are easily accessible. There are few, if any, hidden messages to uncover.  However, there are mysteries to solve in this volume of poetry.

At times reading Master of Disguises is akin to walking through a gallery of carefully crafted puzzles.  The poems frequently investigate events and people of unknown or unclear origin.  There are usually more than enough clues for the reader to find an identity for the subject, but Simic does not give them away.  He asks his reader to carefully consider each subject in order to ascertain a meaning or identity.

As a whole it is meaning and identity that Simic seems to be working with in this fascinating volume. The book allows the reader to discover meaning in the poems for themselves. In fact, the reader may begin to ask questions for themselves.  What does it mean to be homeless or a shut-in spinster?  Who is that older man, you see twice a week coming out of the drycleaners? Who is behind the mask? What is beneath the disguise? All questions are left open for the reader to think over.

Occasionally the text will stray from presenting puzzles for the reader to solve. At those times the poems move into personal exploration. Two examples of this are found in the second of five sections, near the middle of the work. “Our Salvation” explores mid-winter as well as the narrator’s inner gloom, but ends in a surprise reveal of an incongruent relationship. “Solitude” follows immediately and seems to recall the beginnings of that relationship. In these cases, as well as a few others, it is as if the narrator is asking, “who am I?” “Who does this make me?” These forays do not last long, but the book ends on one such deviation, bringing added emphasis to it and the other poems like it in the book. Perhaps unfortunately, any questions that may be raised are never answered. They are left for the reader to consider, to create meaning, or identity on their own.  Though the book does not seem to culminate in any overt realization, this quest for identity and meaning subtly drive the reader along throughout the volume.

Whether you enjoy working on the puzzles Simic has left or contemplating the meaning of identity, this is a volume of poetry to be enjoyed. Witnessing a master at his craft is an experience all too rare.


Master of Disguises by Charles Simic

Houghton Mifflin Harcout 2010

ISBN 978-0-547-39709-2

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