The Circus Poems

Rosy Cole

The Circus Poems
by Alex Grant
Lorimer Press
$16.95 (pa)

Adults are inclined to the illusion that all children love clowns and masks and life-sized puppets, but the unknown being inside a funny fuzzy bear costume can sometimes reduce a bemused infant to tears.

In Alex Grant’s new work, The Circus Poems, he picks up the theme of Fear of Moving Water and goes on to describe anthropoidal existence in a bewildering universe where even symmetry and order are random. He stresses the fragilility of living forms while showing their tenacious commitment to a beating pulse. We go hurtling through constellations at the mercy of sheer momentum until, worn down to dust, we disappear through a pinprick of light that is birth. Thus the cycle begins again. Of the Human Cannonball, he says:

“He dreams the same dream night after night – he is shooting down a narrowing opening towards a pinprick of light – he hears the muffled voices, clanging metal, the soft, liquid rumble sluicing behind, firegush and cordite thick in his mouth – a subterranean voyager riding towards his nightly salvation, high above the pink blur of humanity, upturned faces calling out his name – knives glinting in their hands.”

Was there ever a more vivid analogy of birth? One wonders whether the poet dimly remembers his own to have infused this with so much elemental energy.

The circus characters are the acceptable face of the sinister aspects of human nature. Such entertainment ensures the riveted curiosity of an audience in ecstacies of alarm about how close to annihilation it is possible to steer while keeping balance on life’s tightrope. They are all present, the Clown, the Bearded Lady, the Contortionist, the Magician, the Lion-Tamer, the Strongman…

“Listen as he tears a telephone directory of hearts in two. The strongman fears nothing, Tiger-striped, thicker-skinned than the elephant, wilderness in his eyes, hair thick as tug-boat rope, he’ll crush your ribs like a bar of sodden soap. Children ride on his shoulders, powder pink and
soft as guilt…” 

In different ways, these individuals sum up what our dreamlike span means on a disintegrating planet. The Fortune Teller’s words have a soporific hum that ‘winds in your ear’.

“You are on a very long voyage, unsure of your destination – many companions will come and go, certain places will hold you – you are moving, returning, always returning.”

To capture any of it is a feat as great as any prowess demonstrated by the Acrobat.

“…then flips her grasshopper body and lands on the white stallion’s back as it canters past. Her body melds with the horse – its snort and rumble pulsing through her feet… mane flapping like white seaweed in a bridled sea of dust and plumes and memory.”

Between the big-top spectacular and peeping in at the sideshows, we dip into a few of the calamitous events of global history’s fair. Here, the characters are unmasked projections of those ogled from the ringside. The edges of the Self melt and the lives of the many are contained like fluid in the life of one.

There is a vivid and atmospheric account of the Bolshevik drive to capture Archangel where the White Army put up fierce resistance. I found it reminiscent of the Komarovsky train scene in Doctor Zhivago. The narrative moves from phrases about rutted earth, reddened snow and shards of bone, through wind and ice and men and animals pitching camp in the forest until the wheels turn again:

“and I am done with tents and pegs and iron cages

…Today, I heard a gunshot from my window – the blast echoed

like a lost voice and I imagined the animal falling, its hooves
extending like a four-pointed star, its breath gushing
to the center of the world, its body sucked into the vortex…”

to this, the following day, as if a grip on reality were only to be conserved within the memory:

“…The democracy of snow falls noiselessly to the earth. Tomorrow, I will walk
and eat snow and think of my wife – but in this moment,

I raise a glass of Bull’s Blood to the world –
my first in seven years, and it tastes like the ache
of a young boy – like summer by the Bosphorous – “

and, finally, to this:

“…The Buddha said that to be born human
is like coming up for air in an infinite ocean
and finding your head inside the only ring that floats…”

When the circus passes through Mesa Verde on its roll from Colorado to Utah, a flash flood washes away the big cats’ trailer, but the show goes inexorably on with its thrills, spills, its contortions and deformities. There is a quotation from the Lancashire Evening News of November, 1871 in which a two-headed, eight-limbed female entertained an audience at the Temperance Hall with her duets, one voice contralto, the other soprano, in a ‘very pleasing manner’.  This says everything about our amorphous values and attitude to Death. The story underlines the shiftingness in all things. Those stalwart Victorians might well have applauded themselves for their triumph over the demon liquor, and even a civilised lack of qualms, but their primitive palate for horror was undiminished. 

As Virginia Woolf once remarked: the accent always falls in the wrong place.

For, there are times when the circus itself, with its cracking whips, flinging knives, bloody teeth, fields the danger. During an earthquake which devastated an Andean Valley in 1971, dislodging millions of tons of glacial rubble, 25,000 people perished in one town alone. According to the Punta Arenas Citizen, only 400 people survived and 300 of those were children attending a circus performance.

The ghost of a Deity, neither benevolent nor inimical, but who simply ‘is’, looms through these poems. One such passage describes the Trapeze Artist: 

“The cross-bar hangs like a churchyard flag in a lull – the congregation
waiting for one more revelation to come flying out of cloistered cloth.
The priest of the air mounts his wooden pulpit – throws his spangled
cape into the audience and genuflects in their direction. A silent cross,
a mumbled prayer, and he looks up past the blazing light, the catcher’s
arms open like a pale sacrament, eucharist of skin and bone and wrist.”

This is a superbly focused volume and is, in some ways, more sophisticated than Fear of Moving Water. But there is little whimsical diversion, just unvarnished irony. Grant uses words like surgical instruments probing the deeps of the psyche to abstract the truth. He skilfully dissolves the barriers between all the human senses and methods of perception. This is not for the squeamish. Or the panic-stricken who are anxious to stop the world and get off.

This unnerving ride on the cosmic ferris-wheel will certainly affect your vision.

**Awards for Fear of Moving Water:

Runner-up for the 2010 Oscar Arnold Young Award – Best Collection by a North Carolina Poet. (June, 2010)

Runner-up for the Brockman Campbell Award – Best North Carolina Poetry Collection. (June, 2010) 

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