by Gary Miranda
What matters more than practice
is the fact that you, my audience,
are pulling for me, want me to pull
it off—this next sleight*. Now
you see it. Something more than
whether I succeed’s at stake.
This talk is called patter. This
is misdirection—how my left
hand shows you nothing’s in it.
Nothing is. I count on your mistake
of caring. In my right hand your
undoing blooms like a cancer.
But I’ve shown you that already—
empty. Most tricks are done
before you think they’ve started—you
who value space more than time.
The balls, the cards, the coins—they go
into the past, not into my pocket.
Miranda, G. Grace period. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
* sleight: as in “sleight-of-hand”, clever use of the hands in order to deceive
IB HL Student’s answer for his/her Paper 2: (as written on the IB official Answer Sheet)
The poem “Magician” is as clever and deft as the tricks it describes. Through the use of concealed metaphor, combined with terse and logical language, Miranda expresses the human desire to hide from the harsh realities of life and conveys to the reader that people cannot turn to ‘magic’ for answer—we must discover them for ourselves.
The title of the poem is frank and self-explanatory—the single word ‘Magician’. There is certainly no magic here—no colorful metaphor or exposition. The title takes on clearer significance, however, once the central messages of the poem become apparent. By the last line, the reader will see the Magician as a powerful, maybe even supernatural figure: this idea is developed through the poem.
The opening line is swaggering, confident—“What matters more than practice/ is the fact that you, my audience…want me to pull it off”. The alliteration of ‘matters more’ and subtle half rhymes of ‘fact’, ‘that’ and ‘practice’, ‘audience’ convey a certain smugness, and the idea that the magician’s act is perfect; the magician’s deceptions are effortless, because the audience want to believe him. Half his work is done.
Lines four and five contain some very adroit phrases—‘next sleight’ is smooth and collected, and the word ‘sleight’ in itself is a clever reference to how the magician’s tricks are “sly”.* A somewhat sinister tone enters the poem in this second half of the first verse: we are told that ‘something more’ is at stake than whether the trick works or not. Miranda is trying to tell the reader that the Magician’s sleight of hand has a wider application. His tricks are a form of escapism for the audience, which is why they are pulling for [him]’; if he succeeds, they can believe in ‘magic’ for a little longer.
* ‘Now you see it’ invites the reader to finish with, “and now you don’t”, but we are cheated out of this expected conclusion.
The second verse is a continuation of this dynamic between the Magician and his audience. The magician, the lyric 1, grows noticably more condescending, because he knows the power he holds over them—he ‘patters’ to his audience: “misdirects’ them—they are his playthings. However, he is honest, at least, in this unspoken narration to his act: ‘My left hand shows you nothing’s in it.’ There is an inversion in the sentence order, and the left hand is personified into a showman in its own right. His words and ‘talk’ are tricky, but his actions aren’t—there really is nothing in his left hand—he holds no answers.*
*Life can also be divided into two, like left and right—one can let themselves) be deceived, or seek the truth.
The magician repeats himself, emphasizing the falsity of his “magic”, yet the lure of power is too great. “[He] counts on your mistake of caring,” and in his right hand, the Magician holds “your undoing”. This harsh consonance of ‘count’ and ‘mistake’ sharpens this idea that falling for cheap tricks and magic is wrong. The ‘mistake of caring’ is an ambiguous phrase, but could relate to the under picture: it is caring that causes us pain in life, that drives us to seek another world where we can escape reality It is human to err, to make ‘mistakes’, but without them, the Magician would lose his supernatural power because his form of escapism wouldn’t be needed.*
* This is why he keeps them hanging on.
The audience’s ‘undoing’ ‘blooms like a cancer.’ This is an ugly and unsettling similie, and again, sharp consonance in ‘ke’ and ‘ca’ pierces the reader. The reader realizes that deceiving oneself can consume us, such is the danger of looking for answers in the wrong places. The likening of caner to a blooming flower betrays a Machiavellian streak in the Magician: He nurtures this cancer and helps it grow.
Line 13 repeats that there is no magic; the dash at the end of the line creates a suspense, but again, our hopes are extinguished with the word ‘empty’: Again, the Magician is condescending and arrogant, and expresses his feelings of superiority with ‘Most tricks are done/ before you think they’ve started—you/ who value space more than time! This interesting accusation gives the poem a context outside of a theatre hall, and outside of the present. The reason people are tricked by cheap magic is because they don’t realize the power the past has to dictate the future. The ‘balls, the cards, the coins’ are trivial items, but they are not safe in the Magician’s ‘pocket’, they are lost to the ‘past’. If one extends this metaphor to the things we hold dear in life, we can understand that it is our actions and the paths we have travelled—right or left—that have brought us to the present. The only way we will find answers or relief to the things that pain us is by accepting that there is ‘nothing’—no magic solutions, no fate, no God.
However, this does not mean that we cannot find solace. If the past dictates the present, then the present can dictate the future. Miranda’s ultimate message is that we must live life with open eyes, with a sense of perspective”. –To wait out for salvation, whether from a Magician or God, is to be fooled; we must rely on ourselves.
The structure of the poem reflects the aesthetic content. It is written in free verse, without rhyme and hence without reason or purpose. The poetry is disguised* half rhymes and repetition of letter are Miranda’s only concession to poetic convention.
*– there is certainly no flamboyance or magic in his language. Miranda’s poetry is sleight—
The sentence structure is curt and frank, some ‘as short as two words: ‘Nothing is.’ This conveys the “matter of fact” attitude of the Magician, and the contempt he feels towards the audience. There is also a lot of pronoun interaction: the poem is full of ‘I’ and ‘you’, ‘my’ and ‘your’; this division into two also demonstrates that there is no third-party—no supernatural element.
Ultimately, it is the absence of poetry in ‘Magician’ that makes its message so effective, and shows the reader that God does not exist. Miranda’s deft and adroit language both exposes human weakness and points to where the real answers can be found.
Olson, L. (ed.) (2010) Asia pacific regional workshops DP English A1 (category 1) workbook. Hongkong: International Baccaulaureate Organization.