Novel, poetry collection or concept album? Keane masters the ring and the written word



Death-Defying Acts: New Poems
Erin Keane
WordFarm, 2010

Louisville poet and journalist Erin Keane‘s haunting new collection of circus-themed poems comes with a price: reading this book forces us to admit our fascination for freaks and fools and “the exquisite horror of a sideshow.” Like a ringmaster, Keane balances between spectacle and reality and leads us right up to the funhouse mirrors where we must confront our abnormalities, short-comings, phobias and furtive desires.

Keane has called this collection a “novella” in poems, and the majority of the poems are persona poems spoken by four circus performers in a traveling show. The book opens with the troupe rolling into the countryside and the circus barker’s alluring incantation:
… you will come to us.
You will wind your way up state highway
arteries into our pulsing lot, you will
clutch your handbags and hard-won prizes,
count ice cream stains in the carousel
glow. Hand on her knee, you will ascend
out-of-body in a Ferris wheel car, seeing
none of our faces from that fleeting height.

Turn the page and we are drawn into that murky, tight world of the circus and its principle players: the Clown, the Tattooed Lady, the Lion Tamer and the Aerialist. This cast of characters reveals, little by little, their life stories, their secrets and their relationships to each other within this exclusive subculture.

Keane has crafted arresting poetic forms and compelling voices for her main characters. The Clown (Jack) tells inappropriate jokes as a way to cover up his intense desire to remove his makeup and “pass for a person.” Even the titles of his poems are jokes, i.e., “Two Cannibals Are Eating a Clown—One Turns to the Other and Asks, ‘Does This Taste Funny to You?!'” But the content of Jack’s poems is heartbreaking. He cannot sustain any relationships, and he knows he will never be able to leave the circus life. He walks that thin line between thrill and fear, laughter and tears, curiosity and repulsion—all the reasons why we attend the circus. In “A Clown Without Pity” he violates the fourth wall and warns his audience:

Sure, I know
my place—a fool’s just
a funhouse mirror: your
grotesque twin, slaughtered
ten thousand ways to bust
your guts, to make you feel lucky,
like you could never,
ever be me:
… so don’t
laugh so hard, asshole: who
else could I be but you?

In sharp contrast to the callous voice of Jack is Miranda, the Tattooed Lady. Spiritual and eloquent, her poems are tight lines filled with colorful imagery, just like her body. Her voice is assured, yet she is lonely, so she seeks comfort in having others draw on her body. For Miranda, receiving a tattoo is like receiving communion. In “The Tattooed Lady Transforms” Miranda chants a prayer while the tattoo artist delivers the inky Eucharist: “So many ways / to say hallelujah: the deep ache / of skin to be touched, the descant /of redemptive cover-ups, gasping / grace in empty spaces, the lack / only needles can fill.” And while her voice is holy, she is also fearful:

Some day I’ll run out of skin, …
Imagine my project
finished, the last tableau touched
up to perfect, final flourishes curling
around the Last Supper enjoyed
on my back, Latin prayers running
through seams left between life
after death and sideshow scenes.

The Lion Tamer (Céline) has “learned to read a jawline,” and her words are contained in five-line stanzas that perhaps symbolize the repetition and routine used in training animals and in riding the circus circuit. She’s a weathered carnie whose “season moves forever west.” “I ride with the crew,” she says, “leaving my cats / the cage.” Céline began circus life as a stripper but now wields a whip and puts her head in a lion’s mouth. She understands both her peril and power:

You want to know about danger,
adrenaline jangling—you can’t force
a cat to perform. Each time we step
into the ring, the lion and I know: we
dance for each other. I hold the gun.

Perhaps the most inventive, yet fractured, voice is that of the young Aerialist, Talia. Born into a royal family of high-wire and trapeze artists, Talia escapes the arranged marriage her family has planned for her by joining this itinerant circus family. Her poems are characterized by couplets that are joined with linked words—the end word of one couplet becomes the beginning word of the next couplet—as if she is swinging to and fro on the trapeze:

Edge of the earth, slippered toes balance,
flexing. A platform lip, a spotlight. Freeze.

Unfrozen, instinct tips reflex: the inching
climb backwards. Stepping down, rung after rung.

Ring of mine, your perfect circle has no end, no
beginning. Rolling steps in reserve, sawdust swirling

And while all of the circus performers interact with each other at some point, Talia perhaps affects all of them in the most profound ways.

Death-Dying Acts contains other inventive poems as well. The Fortune Teller Zorada is a phony and only reveals generic information we already know, yet she speaks in sonnets! The collection is also interspersed with four creative concrete poems all with the subtitle “A Strip of Four Black & White Snapshots from the Midway Photomat Booth.” These poems—blocks of nine-line, four-stanza poems meant to look like a strip of photographs—propel the narrative and offer a reprieve from the busy talk and chaotic lives of the performers.

Death-Defying Acts is like a novella, but it is also musically inventive, more like a concept album: The poems reference each other chronologically and topically; they echo symbols and emblems, advance an overarching narrative from four different perspectives, and are linked lyrically, visually and thematically. Keane, the skilled ringmaster, has managed to balance all of these elements with poetic vision and grace. These poems both mystify us and satisfy our metaphorical need to join the circus. Don’t miss this show.

Marianne Worthington is author of the poetry chapbook Larger Bodies Than Mine (Finishing Line Press, 2006) and editor of the Motif anthology series from MotesBooks.

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