There were seven of us eating enchiladas at the Casa Romera when Tony Papadakis stood up in the middle of the restaurant, raised his fist and shouted, Obama is a man of the fucking hoi polloi! We all stopped and stared as he left, the door swinging behind him.
Who are the hoi polloi? Sarah asked. No one was sure. Three women thought the hoi polloi were the rich, sort of like the hotsy totsy, and three men said the hoi polloi were the poor. We all agreed that being a member of the hoi polloi was not a good thing.
Does that mean we love men to be rich and women to be poor? I asked.
No, Steve said. It means it’s best to be neither-nor. We Americans love those who take the middle path. Sort of like Goldilocks, we want to find the bed or bank account that’s not too big or too small, like the bowl of porridge that’s not too hot or too cold.
But Goldilocks was a burglar and a thief, Molly argued. Which is something both the rich and the poor are accused of being from time to time. They’re always taking from others what doesn’t belong to them. Feeling entitled. Making themselves at home in a world that doesn’t love them.
Tom disagreed. He said the hoi polloi are the average men and women, the kind no one wants to be. They’re the faceless masses, the passersby, like the extras on movie sets. They’re designed to look so familiar that no one notices them. Their job is to be everyone in general and no one in particular so that the heroes and heroines can star in their own lives, forever enjoying the distant sound of our applause.
-- Nin Andrews
Like other poems in the 100 poems project, this poem exceeds its occasion, reflecting a complex stance toward our shared public reality. The poem is consistently funny and interesting. I admire its pitch-perfect vernacular narration and dialog, its trenchant sociological commentary, and its surprising development. It moves from a casual anecdotal beginning (“There were seven of us eating enchiladas at the Casa Romero”), through the distilled debate in its middle section, to an unexpected final stanza, an almost existential description of what it’s like to be an “average” citizen in present-day America. How does the poem make the leap to its unexpected ending?
Looking closely at the last stanza, I see a shift from the conversational tone elsewhere in the poem, and also a shift from narration and dialog to simile. The “average men and women, the kind no one wants to be,” are “faceless masses,” “passersby, like the extras on movie sets. They’re designed to look so familiar that no one notices them.” The word “designed” implies a controlling maker, who has created the faceless masses to be extras, not full human beings. They are props to enhance the major players, the stars of the movie set that is
Perspective shifts with the shift in language. We, along with the poem’s characters, are no longer speculating on what’s going on in American life. Instead, we are being told. Before this in the poem, we had distinct individuals with distinctive ways of speaking. Now Tony Papadakis, Sarah, Steve, Molly, the unnamed narrator, and Tom give way to nameless faceless extras; and through a sudden shift of person (from “they” and “their” to “our”) we realize we, the readers, are now amalgamated in that anonymous mass.
Although I can identify certain techniques at work, the level of skill in this poem amounts to a conjuring feat. What’s done is done so skillfully, it’s hard to see the conjuror’s hand at work. Not the least of its pleasures, the poem is consistently funny, even if with a shiver in its unexpectedly dark conclusion.
Rumination on our shared public situation stands by itself in this poem, but is also filled out by the 99 poems that accompanied it in the original on-line project. You’ll be able to see all hundred poems gathered together in Starting Today: Poems for the First Hundred Days of the Obama Administration,” edited by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker, and due out in April from The University of Iowa Press.
-- Patricia Carlin