In the Circus of You by Nicelle Davis and Cheryl Gross (Rose Metal Press, 2015)
Reviewed by Jay Besemer
Poets are subject to life changes and catastrophes just like anyone else. Often the work of poetry becomes a platform to examine experiences and options related to the crises in question. The empirical methodology of this process can be surprising. Especially when a poet’s own experience is complex, intense, ambiguous and disturbing, writing from that space means moving beyond the confessional narrative or the mannerly lyric and into less comfy terrain. That’s where Nicelle Davis’ In the Circus of You lives. This collaboration between Davis and artist Cheryl Gross is so strong it busts the confines of genre, self-identifying as “an illustrated novel-in-poems.”
In the case of Circus, this means a different treatment of narrative elements than one often finds in either poetry or fiction. The story is told without a linear structure through linked yet formally diverse poems. Traditional “novelistic” elements are present, but differently so. There are characters; the narrator/author is herself a character, and we can safely believe the “I” she wields is self-referencing: “I don’t want to disappear./I want to feel my mouth on a hot/edge” (16). Imagery and sense cues are obviously very powerful here; in fact the sensory quality of the text both resonates and pleasantly disputes with the visuals in the illustration. This is a further strength, because it means readers will never have the same Circus twice.
In this section from “Entering the Big Top of the Self Requires Help,” we see how the poetic situation demands a disavowal of cheapness, oversimplification or candy-coating:
An Above-Ground Burial
Wanting the bones but refusing the responsibility of flesh,
I cradle the bird in a box. Wrap the container in barbwire
to keep crows off, allow bugs in. Silverfish will make
bread of this pigeon until all that’s left are pieces smooth
as the moon—confirmation that our centers are made
from a masonry of light (70).
This is where it seems clear that Circus needed to manifest as poetry. In this kind of poem, the goal is to get the condensed immediacy of the present onto the page and into the reader’s own body. Fictional detachment and the false perspective of a narrative structure can’t evoke the reeling sensation of losing a love, dividing a home, and fighting not only for one’s share but for one’s sanity. Just reading a narrator’s claim to be the star freak in the sideshow of their own life does nothing to a reader’s own bodily security; Davis’ superpower seems to be the ability to pass along this kind of physicality to the audience, to be felt not vicariously or as schadenfreude, but with full-on physical recognition. The poem “A Secret Note from the Dream-Self” works especially well for this:
A Secret Note from the Dream-Self
Search for the pig’s head
blindly—with a spoon,
uproot the skull. Its empty
sockets house dream-
sight. Wear it. You’ll see
the pulse of imagery.
Pictures occupy both living
and dead spaces—dreams
are made from such over-
laps. Make a ladder to
reach down the burrow of
your throat. Then trace
the sky’s profile with a dry
tongue on parchment.
Rungs are made from tran-
scribed birdsong, but
keep its melodies to yourself.
Dreamers risk a butchery
of words. A bone helmet is no
protection against what
they’ll call you if they find you
inside a hog, singing
for the sky to dig you a tunnel
to the stars (31).
Readers don’t need to have experienced the act—or the dream—of digging up and wearing the skull of a previously buried hog in order to feel uncomfortable imagining being caught doing it.
Cheryl Gross’ illustrations absolutely contribute to this magnificent process, pulling no punches in terms of the grotesque but never letting go of compassion’s hand. These images are as condensed and coded as the poems they converse with. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cover illustration is the best example of this, and is a great visual map to the text. A carousel with freakish human-beasts as mounts—creatures that feel alive, not carved or cast of inert materials—bear childlike riders all obsessively checking their mobile devices. A closer examination reveals that at least one “horse” is also checking a device! As a visual metaphor for the attention-shredding effects of trauma, this works very well, and is quite funny too.
Ultimately, In the Circus of You is like entering the dim labyrinthine tent of a carnival sideshow and seeing that all the “freaks” are in fact you. After the initial shock and dismay wear off, you also realize that they are completely beautiful, their monstrosity subtracting nothing from their confidence and presence. From your presence. Davis’ poems move through messy living—deep and powerful engagement with parenting, divorce and life with a brain disorder. Much of the mess can’t fit easily into words. Yet where language fails is where poetry triumphs, because poetry is never just words.
In the Circus of You by Nicelle Davis and Cheryl Gross
Rose Metal Press, 2015
Nicelle Davis is a California poet who walks the desert with her son J.J. in search of owl pellets and rattlesnake skins. The author of two other books of poetry, her most recent book, Becoming Judas, is available from Red Hen Press. Her first book, Circe, is available from Lowbrow Press. Another book of poems, The Walled Wife, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in 2016. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Beloit Poetry Journal, The New York Quarterly, PANK, SLAB Magazine, and others. She is editor-at-large of The Los Angeles Review. She has taught poetry at Youth for Positive Change, an organization that promotes success for youth in secondary schools, MHA, and with Volunteers of America in their Homeless Youth Center. Recipient of the 2013 AROHO retreat 9 3/4 Fellowship, she is honored to work as a consultant for this important feminist organization. She currently teaches at Paraclete and with the Red Hen Press WITS program. Visit her website here.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Cheryl Gross is an illustrator, writer, and motion graphic artist living and working in the New York/Jersey City area. She is a professor at Pratt Institute and Bloomfield College. Cheryl received her MFA from Pratt Institute. Her work has appeared in numerous films, TV shows, publications, and corporate and museum collections, including: The Museum of the City of New York, The New York Times, The Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, Circe, and Becoming Judas, among others. She wrote and illustrated the novel The Z Factor. Visit her website here.
Jay Besemer‘s most recent poetry collections are A New Territory Sought (Moria) and Aster to Daylily (Damask Press). As Jen Besemer, he also authored Telephone (Brooklyn Arts Press), Quiet Vertical Movements (Beard of Bees) and Object with Man’s Face (Rain Taxi Ohm Editions). His work is also included in Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat). Other poem projects, performance texts and critical essays have appeared or are forthcoming in TENDE RLOIN, Monsters & Dust, Nerve Lantern, Rain Taxi Review of Books, PANK, Jacket2 and other venues. Jay is a teaching artist at Chicago’s Spudnik Press Cooperative and tweets @divinetailor.
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