Students Respond: Allusion and Metaphor in “Tin Man at Café de l’Opera”
Poetry students at Douglas College were asked to respond to poems in EVENT, discussing observations on technique as well as what they learned as writers. Over the next few weeks we’ll be posting a selection of these responses with the accompanying poem. The poem below, by Rob Ruttan, first appeared in EVENT 45/2.
Tin Man at Café de l’Opera
All through a Barcelona spring day
he stood for pennies on La Ramblas,
dressed & painted
like the Tin Man from Oz.
Now his axe leans against the wall
while he sits alone in a high-ceilinged bar,
as if afraid of contact
because his chest, in truth, is hollow.
I wish I could show him the woods
north of the 49th,
settle him into an Abitibi camp
and say to the loggers,
‘Do as he does—
hold the axe delicately,
remain still, let birds
settle on you.
Take care of one another
in the rain.’
There’s a bit of silver lipstick
on his beer glass. He sits,
makeup darkening around his eyes,
watching straight ahead
is his nature.
I’m filled with a strange almost-need
to walk over and tell him he’s beautiful,
that he reminds me
of the deep & silent forests of home.
What drew me to this poem was the author’s ability to evoke empathy and convey longing with his use of allusion and metaphor. He portrayed the Tin Man as a lonely, isolated figure, whom he wanted to comfort and draw out of his shell by telling him what he doesn’t appear to know—“he’s beautiful,”—and that he could serve as a role model to the woodcutters he knew back home in the Abitibi camp—“and say to the loggers, ‘Do as he does –/hold the axe delicately,/…Take care of one another/in the rain.’”
The allusion of the Tin Man is effective because it evokes empathy immediately. The Tin Man is known to not yet have a heart, even though in The Wizard of Oz he behaves in ways that show he already does, such as not wanting to kill a butterfly for use in a magic potion. Also, The Tin Man’s longing to have a heart in itself evokes empathy. The main character in the poem is painted in silver, carries an axe, and is an isolated figure, sitting at a bar, with no-one to talk to after a long day’s work: “There’s a bit of silver lipstick/on his beer glass. He sits,/makeup darkening around his eyes,/watching straight ahead…” This is a clear image of a lonely person, wrapped in a protective, isolating shell of silver makeup. This technique of allusion is effective because it is an immediate shortcut to allowing the reader to identify with the feelings of the main character in his poem, which are similar to those of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. Especially as he looks exactly like him.
The speaker has used the Tin Man as a metaphor to convey longing and isolation, both in how the Tin Man is physically described: “dressed and painted like the Tin Man from Oz./A woodcutter,” which is an image of discomfort and vulnerability, (i.e. the Tin Man needs other people to oil him. This character is alone), and by his isolating actions: “Now his axe leans against the wall/while he sits alone in a high-ceilinged bar,/as if he is afraid of contact,/because his chest, in truth, is hollow.” The speaker doesn’t know this person is hollow, but he infers this from the isolating actions and expressions of the character.
The speaker uses the Tin Man, sitting alone in a bar, as a metaphor for perceiving himself as an outcast, being a foreigner, away from his own country and missing home: “he reminds me/of the deep & silent forests of home.” This passage relates to the speaker wanting to connect with someone, and to ease the Tin Man’s loneliness by sharing his stories of what it’s like back home.
The author uses the technique of allusion effectively in this piece, because in using the Tin Man as a comparison, he is able to draw many different images and emotions relating to that well-known character, including loneliness, isolation, vulnerability, and the chance to evoke empathy. The metaphor of longing and isolation as represented by the Tin Man was used effectively to convey the speaker’s own feelings of isolation as a traveler, when he looked upon the Tin Man sitting in the bar, alone.
As a writer, I’ve learned that allusion is a powerful shortcut to invoking vivid, complete images. It leaves more space to expand on ideas relating to this image, without a lot of explanation. I’ve also learned that using one distinct image, such as the Tin Man character in this poem, enables a writer to imagine an entire back story, which he might relate to his own experiences. Using only brief images, such as “silver lipstick/on his beer glass” is such a specific, highly focused use of imagery; such an unusual image, i.e. that of a man with silver lipstick drinking a beer, that it immediately captures your attention. I plan to use more unusual, concrete imagery such as this in my writing, and have discovered that allusion is an excellent shortcut and backdrop for portraying my own characters, images and personal experiences.
Read more of Rob Ruttan’s poetry in EVENT 45/2.