Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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As a child, I saw one of those sideshow mermaids sewn from a monkey corpse and fish bits, a desiccated little toothy thing, spine twisted in a swimmerly corkscrew, on display in a museum terrine.
The production of meaning: that’s what the weird little artifact was a testament to, at once evidence for a sense of wonder and boundary work-around for what we insist upon as normal.
The freak show makes us feel better in these two ways: that the rubber boy exists, and that we are not like him. I mean: the freak show is a story we tell, with increasingly desperation, needing to believe.
In the Circus of You features such stories, and stitch-work, too, like the fake mermaid. A hybrid text, poems entangled together in various ways, repeating certain narrative strands (the tenuous maintenance of mood via medicine; the time-lapse disintegration of divorce; parenthood as a sack of writhing intimacies, anxieties, and claustrophobia) paired with images that range from the mild (a slaughtered pig’s head looks almost smiling, like a children’s book cartoon) to dark (off-kilter and bristling with hair, a contortionist’s body cracked backwards, distended). Crank up the hand organ: “Nickel crowds line up to see / the boneless woman.” Here is the lizard man, here some tumbling acrobats. And there are clowns: the sad sort, and the sinister, the simultaneously both. The legless and armless display themselves, their skills. Conjoined twins expose themselves (and in one poem, one such, thirty years old, “masturbates for the first time. The weight of her dead sister draped next to her... Alone and complete”).
The interest in freaks tilts, too, toward one of identification: a band of outsiders, that chanting family welcoming one of their own. Davis writes: “We, like you, / are wrongly / used” and, indeed, her interest with such examples of humanity is empathy and expression of more commonplace dislocations and distortions. Physical oddities become metaphors for how we feel in the everyday, trapped in invisible cages, shivering with unnameable dread as we struggle to light another cigarette. “I drove this far out of town to hide / from our son,” one narrator admits. She analyzes her use of language, sees the way she’s twisted around and gone all escape artist on phrasing: “I say / ‘a’ cigarette, I mean ‘mine.’ When I say ‘my’ / windshield, I mean ‘the car’s.’ / There is distinction in ownership. / Guilt belongs to me. You gave me HPV, but I took it willingly— / wanting to believe in the religious alchemy of becoming one / flesh.”
But there is no alchemy in this world, no mermaids, no angels. What there is is harsh: “a hole the size of your fist in our bathroom door. My fault, I’m told, for pushing the hinge towards your movements.” Or pills arranged “into smiling faces” across a kitchen counter, and the memory of a spouse who “said that these clowns were the solution to our / marital problems—that who I am // ruined us.” Instead of a mermaid, a migraine, the plastic-wrap suffocation of getting through another day. Instead of some exotic deformity, “fingernails . . . grazed to the quick . . . asleep in my clothes again.” We want to believe, but when the infrastructure of myth falls short, when the assemblage is shown for what it is—a cheap taxidermy perversion of lies, lies—then how do we keep breathing? Pills? Cigarettes? This little book, a labyrinth of funhouse mirrors, offers no clear solution. “I—wanting to be necessary as water—am a fool,” Davis writes, “To think. We / could have been more to each other than drowning.”
Official Nicelle Davis Web Site
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