That’s my name plate,
calling card: fat man, drunkard, turnip-
face: rage’s endless, hectoring joke.
Fans pretend they can’t believe it, insist
it’s all a game: they call me Santa
in the gossip pages, they call me Naughty
Chickadee. But it’s the lion they like,
roaring and bleeding, their timid fists
rapping at my cage. Fame
means accepting you can be only one story.
I have no particular interest in W.C. Fields, but I find myself fascinated by the speaker of this poem (available online). It’s not easy to feel sympathy towards the successful, the rich and famous; they have what everyone, admit it or not, wants. But of course they too pay a price, sometimes a dear one.
The poem starts off with Fields’ rambling about his reality vs his image, a common enough theme among the famous, who hire an army of agents, managers, publicity flacks, stylists, and even social circles and recreational destinations to cultivate an image while insisting on their own ordinariness. The basis of comedy is the suffering of others; here the veil is lifted and we see what’s behind Fields’ bitter humor.
The Fields speaking the poem takes us back to his mother:
…While at home
she never knew what to be, wringing her hands
by the kitchen stove, too sensitive, she said,
to the sad slow beat of my heels
drumming on the carpet. She said
she wanted life to be something realer
for herself. Me, I can walk a mile with a nail in my boot
and a smile on my face. I can walk
until the metal drills into my sole.
That’s a lovely rhythmic punch to “the sad slow beat of my heels,” and a nice use of the homophone pairs “metal/mettle” and “sole/soul.”
He moves on to other events in his life, while singing the Pagliacci song; laugh, clown, laugh. A lovely little thematic parenthesis: “You want funny, break a bone / and sing through it” at the start, ending with losing a tooth in boxer Jack Dempsey’s locker room: “I stuck my tongue through that bloody place / and sang The Marseillaise.”
That seems to be the crux of whatever disease this is: he craves the fame and fortune more than he hates what is necessary to earn it, and wants credit for that choice. That’s what keeps me on this side of sympathy: try making a living the way most people do, bagging groceries or waiting tables or selling insurance or tallying accounts. Try inhabiting the world of the father we read about in “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes”; that father was also called names, and had his loneliness, so that his son could grow up to be a poet. Most people live with their tongues in their bloody places, for a lot less pay.