In the Circus of You: An Illustrated Novel-in-Poems
by Nicelle Davis, artwork by Cheryl Gross
Rose Metal Press, March 2015
*Special guest review by Kim Koga
I was entranced by this book. When I started reading it, I wanted to read it slower and slower just to make it last longer. I stopped reading it for days to think about it, to make the poems extend, and to see how they lived inside my head. The art is stark in that the lines are simple, but the contrast of line quality, movement, shading, and saturation are indicative of the depth and echo between Davis’s poems and Gross’s illustrations. Sometimes, the illustrations are direct echoes in that the titles of the poems appear in the drawing, but the words are often squished and deformed. Sometimes, I couldn’t decipher them until I read the title of the poem and returned to illustration. Other times, the drawings stand alone, perhaps seemingly separate, but they hold/encase/show the poem in a compact and fractured way. I approached this book somewhat methodically – I’d look at the illustration first and note my impressions, then read the poem and annotate, then return to the illustration and note any additional impressions. This way I could catch small details in the drawings that I’d previously neglected or missed, and I could place the poem in the context of the techniques of the drawing, and techniques of drawing into the words/images within the poems.
Throughout these poems we study the circus as an environment, as a planet, as a way of life – as a life. The circus is inhabited by the circus freaks – these humans that are treated like spectacle and displayed as such – as Davis’s poems move through loss, separation, grief and postpartum, she becomes inhuman, or at least disassociated with her humanity, and she becomes part of the sideshow. Davis’s grief, loss, and depression make her a spectacle:
“Panting over your chest. Early Morning. You want to keep / sleeping. I want a different shape to fit my bones. I’m not / a bitch, I bark. Teeth nipping your ears. Say I’m not. Not. / The taste of blood. You want reasons for a feeling – // here are the reasons: love’s not nice, it calls me names –makes / a game of me. Makes me hungry and hurt where I’ve bitten / myself. I catch sight of us in a mirror— / in my mouth a bird – killed and gifted.” (from “Gifts of a Shape-Shifter”)
This book is filled with many animal bodies, human bodies, bones, shapes, and barbed wire. The round shapes throughout the first section remind me of clichéd circle of life, but there is more underneath. There is the way a round shape slips through space, seemingly frictionless – its unstoppable nature is defined by its form. Whether a tunnel, a hole, pill, a ball, the sun – these round things move unstoppable just as Davis’s process of loss hurtles forward into unknown futures.
These round things include an orb or birds, “The hog-head seems closer than it is, smiling ten yards / off. Sun on their backs, red horses burn as they round / the gate, passing trees ripe with crows. Fragments of / the hog lie beneath this orb of birds…” (from “I Drive Our Son around Every day at Noon”). These birds are seen throughout the book — birds in flight, birds in mouths, decapitated bird wings, birds watching and waiting – fierce and fragile, scattered through the poems in both symbol and action. They are not defined as a single symbolic meaning, but are as mutable and variegated as nature and emotion.
Gross’s illustrations mimic and enhance the poems – the line quality serves to add a stranger depth to the poems, and the gray hues add a weight and darkness to the poems that, I think, would feel very different without them. I can’t imagine the poems without these images alongside, mimicking, echoing, and undulating across the pages, taking the reader through the darker sides of the circus.
Many of these poems feel like death and mourning rather than separation, but are death and separation really different things anyway? There is a heavy reclaiming, reimagining, and redefining of the self post-separation and a redefining of how relationships evolve and change as well. In reading these poems, I was reminded about these zombie mothers – which I think are fascinating. After the birth of her son, she becomes a zombie: “I didn’t trust myself / with this armful of breath now outside me. I avoided edges / and sleep – stopped showering. All so I could watch him. And / watch him more. People called me crazy. I told them, Come near / us and I’ll take your face with my teeth – starting with your eyes.” (from “The Postpartum Sideshow—or—What do I know about Being a Freak?’). Birth and baby take over her body and she becomes a shell.
The sections of the book are a journey through loss and transformation, zombie life and death, relationships and separation; but this description is too simplistic. The nuances of image and words, the way the sections of the book interact, the way the poems interact with each other – it’s all too complex to fully investigate in a short review. I love all of these relationships and all of these layers: the circus, the animals, circus animals, the sideshow and sideshow freaks, circus performers – possible murders, possible deaths – and the only things that are left are the bones.
Submerged, Breath an intake
of fluid, held upside down, I
’m slapped, the bones of a bird
burst from my mouth and shatter
as pelts of water on the ground.
—“Brought Back to Life Inside-Out”
*Kim Koga is a freelance writer and editor, and a managing editor for 1913 Press. Tinfish press published her chapbook Ligature Strain in 2011. Her work has been featured in _list magazine, Lantern Review, and Ariel, among others. She received her MFA in Poetry from the University of Notre Dame and currently resides in San Diego, CA.
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This is such a quality review that I would like to have it when I do get the book, I was going to get it any way but this reviewers insights , which are so free of ego and full of genuine interest make me feel more possitive about this often fragile relationship. I am impressed by both