Review of The Circus Poems
Poems by Alex Grant
Lorimer Press, 2010, 53 pages, $16.95
Alex Grant says he loves the circus. And why not? We all do. And his new collection of poems, titled The Circus Poems, illustrates why. Grant begins his book with a quotation from artist Marc Chagall: “For me, a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world. A circus is disturbing. It is profound.” That statement conveys so much of what we all find appealing about the circus. It is “like a world,” or better yet, like the world, like our world, only better. Better because whereas in our world the oddities, the personal foibles, even the freakishly super abilities are hidden from view by closed doors, pulled curtains, family secrets, the masks of normalcy we all wear, in the world of the circus, they are paraded forth, laid bare for all to see in the safe enclosures of tents and rings and stages. Safe because the circus comes and goes, “appears and disappears,” unlike our daily lives, and we decide whether or not and how often we will enter that world. Safe, in other words, because we don’t live in the circus; the residents of the circus are not us, not our family, not even our neighbors.
Nevertheless, what makes the circus world most appealing is that it is still relevant because its occupants are, in a number of ways, very much like us. Thus, while they appear different, they remain hauntingly, “profoundly” and “disturbingly” familiar. Archetypally speaking, if the circus is a microcosm of our world, then the residents of the circus, particularly the residents of Grant’s circus, represent those who populate the world . . . us. Just as we understand that everyone in our dreams is a manifestation of some part of the dreamer, it is clear that every character in these poems, every figure in the circus, manifests some aspect of the poet and the reader, some aspect of who we are as people.
The first of the figures Grant presents us is “The Ringmaster,” he who controls, who narrates, who keeps things “contained in a small box . . . on a shelf,” just as we attempt to direct our lives by keeping them contained in the boxes of home, job, routine, and just as we attempt to control the interpretation of our lives by collecting memorabilia, photographs, letters, journals, etc. and keeping them in small boxes on a shelf. The reader’s, and thus all of our, complicity in these efforts to control and contain is made clear by a subtle shift to second person in the last line as Grant names something we all collect: “The brittle shards of day under your fingernails.”
Another such archetypal figure is “The Human Cannonball” who echoes Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation” as he is constantly propelled by forces he neither sees nor understands while he “dreams the same dream night after night.” He also becomes Sisyphean in the way he is described as “a subterranean voyager riding towards his nightly salvation.” The nature of this salvation is unnamed, of course, because it will be different for each reader: religion, family, money, etc. What is most interesting, however, is that even the certainty of this salvation is brought into question as the audience all have “knives glinting in their hands.”
In each poem Grant presents in the image of a circus figure another statement on what it feels like to be human. In “The Tightrope Walker,” for example we are shown the necessities of risk and uncertainty inherent in the human condition, as well as the uncertain redemption gained through self-awareness and self-declaration: “Smile fixed dead ahead–we all walk without the net, . . . high wire Hottentots in love with the world . . . . each body singing of its own downfall.”
Interspersed among these poems of subtle conceits are others that are not clearly circus-related but that, like the circus poems, cause us to think about the nature of human existence. “The Road to Archangel,” for example, follows up imagery of human atrocities and suffering with this statement about our resilience:
to be born human
is like coming up for air in an infinite ocean
and finding your head inside the only ring that floats–
and you hold on to the ring, you can breathe the air,
and somehow you reach the shore, and this,
. . . is only the beginning–and here I stand,
alone in the forest, looking down at the ocean–
Body of water. Breath of salt. Beginning.
As that poem suggests, Grant explores the full range of human nature unblinkingly, including those elements he, along with most of us, would resist, and a lesser poet would deny. The best image of these elements of humanity comes from the book’s best poem, “Trampling Down the Vintage,” where Grant weaves together the stories of John Brown and the Nazi genocide of Gypsies, characterizing the source of these atrocities archetypally as “a black-capped judge // deep in the sleep of ignorance,” whom the speaker must confront:
All my life, I have felt your hands around my throat,
your gloves thick and warm, smelling of nothing.
We will meet again, in a field out beyond today,
stripped, like holy men, holding our arms in the air.
This is not Grant’s first circus. He has already written a significant number of impressive, engaging, deeply meaningful poems in his previous books, but none have been more resonant than these because these function as a unit, each one adding texture to the one before it and to the work at large. Simply put, The Circus Poems is not just a good collection of poems but an important one, and one of my favorites this year.