|Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando by Edward Degas|
National Gallery, London
Circuses, fairs, and carnivals provide a lot of stimulation—and good prompts for poems. It seems, though, that the trapeze artists are especially interesting to poets. At least to the poets who entered the May Poetry Challenge. Like other aspects of a circus, amusement park, carnival, or fair, the trapeze is useful as a metaphor as well as for poems actually about the trapeze act or artists.
The first of the winning poems this month focuses on the trapeze artists themselves:
She swings back and forth
on the high trapeze waiting
for the sign her partner
is in time with her rhythmic
movement before she lets go
to fly with trust that his hands
will be waiting to catch her
as they've always done before.
The crowd below sits in
Trying not to visualize the potential
horror of a missed grasp and helpless
look on the performers’ faces as she
drops to the center ring far below.
She swings distracted by
and doubts: his recent coolness
and distant looks at a young girl
in the crowd before their ascent;
his questionable late night excursions;
and a realization she recognized the girl
as one who ducked out of sight as he came
toward the performance ring, head down.
His face is confused as he
her to let go but she pumps harder to
break their rhythm, instead swinging
back up to her starting platform,
her trust gone. The act done.
She descends the
tall ladder back
to the ground amid crowd noises
of disappointment and wonder. She brushes
past the young girl without looking
and says "He's yours...for now,
but be ready to fall."
~ W.E. Hudson
This is a fine narrative poem.
The ambiance of the next poem is quite different:
Walking on a
above the laughing circus stars,
you balance your burdens
like a ball on a clown’s nose,
changing acts like clothes,
and with your head tilted, all eyes
on your outstretched arms,
you step, one inch at a time,
knowing that if you fall,
there won’t be an angel
to save you.
You are a Hungarian
on stage like a flying Wallenda,
every move a measure to perfection,
every misstep a reminder of who you once were.
You teeter on a wire of success,
balancing each pyramid of precision.
Which way should you
Don’t look down, or the distance will fool you.
Don’t look up, or the heavens will delude you.
The room grows as you speed up your gait,
with rouged cheeks and magenta lips,
dyed red hair and glittery leotard,
you pause just enough to wink
at the emcee, whose dark presence below
reminds you of all you have accomplished,
and all you stand to lose.
~ Caroline Johnson
I read this poem as a metaphor for life. Of how we all “change acts” and “teeter on a wire of success,” with all sorts of possibilities of missteps. If we don’t take risks, we won’t accomplish much, yet, we have much to lose.
The trapeze plays a lesser role in this poem:
The Greatest Show on Earth
I’ve done my share of juggling, performing magic,
speaking in such a way that the voice
coming out of my mouth seemed to come from a source
other than myself — more like my mother!
I’ve acted like a clown,
have tried to balance like the trapeze artist on a highwire,
but at this stage of my life I am more like the tent.
I’ve had a lifetime of being set up, taken down.
I’ve unlearned the ways of relentless performances,
have opened the flaps of myself to what is important.
Boys, girls, children of my children of all ages,
come sit with me in the center of this spacious tent.
Come hear the music, laugh, be thrilled, marvel.
The greatest show on earth is being a grandparent.
~ Angela Hoffman
As a grandmother, I could not resist the surprise ending of this poem! I, too have “done my share of juggling,” and sometimes—especially when reprimanding my children—came out like the voice of my mother. And I want my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to “come sit with me in the center of this spacious tent.” Spacious? Yes, with room for more!
As is already clear from “The Last Act,” not all the poems were cheerful. This last poem, which gives us hints of what fairs and other such events are like in the United Kingdom (in contrast to the above poems written by North Americans), shows how they can be used as sources of negative metaphors.
At the Fun Fair
Dad shot the ducks
like my dreams. Left me
to retrieve their limp,
lifeless bodies. No prizes.
The haunted house
didn't scare me since
living with him acclimatised
me to ghosts and vampires.
Fluffy cotton-candy clouds
never drowned out the day.
I rode the merry-go-round,
wished my steed would ride me
away. It never happened,
so I slid down the helter-skelter
into adulthood, never anticipating
everything crashing into me
like dodgem cars.
~ Christian Ward
As I read Ward’s poem, I felt empathy for all children whose parents shoot down their dreams and haunt their lives instead of enhancing them. I don’t assume this is true of Ward—it could be a personal poem—but he has used the language of the “fun fair” to effectively express the plight of many young people.
I hope you have enjoyed these poems, and that you will be watching for the June Poetry Challenge. Congratulations to these four winners.
Each poet retains copyright to his or her own poem.
Angela Hoffman’s poetry collections include Resurrection Lily and Olly Olly Oxen Free (Kelsay Books). She placed third in the WFOP Kay Saunders Memorial Emerging Poet in 2022. Her work is widely published. She has written a poem a day since the start of the pandemic. Angela lives in rural Wisconsin.
Bill Hudson lives in the Quad Cities, is a member of the Quint Cities Poetry Club, and has regularly had poems published in the Lyrical Iowa, The Rockford Review, and other places.
Caroline Johnson has two illustrated poetry chapbooks, Where the Street Ends and My Mother’s Artwork, and more than 400 poems in print. Nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, she won 1st place in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row 2012 Poetry Contest, and her poetry has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. Her full-length collection, The Caregiver (Holy Cow! Press, 2018) was inspired by years of family caregiving. She is part of the P2 Collective, a Chicago-area group of poets and photographers who present at area galleries, and online. Visit her at www.caroline-johnson.com.
Christian Ward is a UK-based writer who has recently appeared in The Hemlock, South Florida Poetry Journal, The Dewdrop, Dodging the Rain, The Seventh Quarry, Bluepepper, Tipton Poetry Journal, The Amazine and Indian Periodical. His first poetry collection, Intermission, is out now on Amazon. He was recently commended in the 2023 Poets & Players competition.
© Wilda Morris