Dispatches | February 26, 2013

In the feather and rouge of 1982 pop-country, Sylvia’s man tried to pull an Odysseus on her. But she was no one-eyed, blinded dupe screaming to her cohorts to get Nobody. Oh no.


“Your Nobody called today, / She hung up when I asked her name, / Well I wonder if she thinks she’s being clever.”

Sylvia’s hip to the Homeric joke—“Well you say Nobody’s after you, / the fact is what you say is true”—and brings it round with her own Nobody pun—“but I can love you like Nobody can, / even better.”

Like Polyphemus’s boulder launched into the sea, the Nobody bomb heaves a groundswell, as Derek Walcott writes, displacing personhood, identity, significance. There’s mischief in such name games, in such assertion of negation, such presence of absence.

polyphemusIt’s a favorite device of poets because, used for somebody, nobody is never true, and wasn’t it some Greek like Plato who called poets liars?

Hurled at another—“you’re nobody”—it’s verbal manslaughter, gouging the eye/I.

Dropped on oneself—“I’m nobody”—a kind of suicide, or abject and potentially shifty diffidence, or as a name—Nobody—the oldest trick in the book. As Dickinson understood, anonymity can be empowering; identity, a sham and a bore (“How public – like a frog – ”).

Dismissively shrouding a third party—“oh, she’s nobody”—it’s a cover, like Odysseus’s men clinging to the undersides of sheep.


But at its most poetic, the power lies in a pun like Odysseus’s or Sylvia’s, in duplicity. For having been themselves duped and treated like Nobodies, to be disposed of and walked over, they use Nobody’s powerful gradient of displacement to their advantage, countervailing with duplicitous double-duty irony, bettering, one-upping.

Nobody is always ironic.