In the Circus of You
Set aside your preconceived ideas of a circus. Sure, clowns, animals, and oddballs populate In the Circus of You, an illustrated novel in poems, but the words and drawings are a revelation. Poet Nicelle Davis and artist Cheryl Gross, each seeming to have a circus within themselves, team up to create a fantastic mini-world combining reality with illusion, and not always in a fun way. Set aside your preconceived ideas of a circus. Sure, clowns, animals, and oddballs populate In the Circus of You, an illustrated novel in poems, but the words and drawings are a revelation. Poet Nicelle Davis and artist Cheryl Gross, each seeming to have a circus within themselves, team up to create a fantastic mini-world combining reality with illusion, and not always in a fun way. Take, for example, “I Found My Own, I Must Have Eaten It Not Knowing,” which starts off:
This morning I woke as a sword swallower with my hand half-
down my throat. It took me an hour to gag it up. I couldn’t
convince my fingers to loosen their fist.
Less severe is this from “Poster of a Clown”:
He says, My foot has grown into
this machine, same as your hand has turned into a carrot.
The horse is eating my fingers—I wake to find my palm full of sunshine.
Incidentally, the above poem is presented in its entirety as an animated motion graphic on the publisher’s web site, and on Davis’s personal site. It’s well worth a look.
Davis and Gross shed light on their process in the book’s afterword. “We founded our own circus troupe with this project,” they collectively write. “The images and poems were created spontaneously and simultaneously through a yearlong email exchange—[it] became a sort of conversation between two women who were rummaging through the wreckage of their failed marriages.”
Elizabeth Bradfield, poet and founder of Broadsided Press, where Davis and Gross met, adds, “[ . . . ] the art of this book addresses the inner creatures that prowl beneath our daily actions and reactions.”
In some instances, the art actually overshadows the poem. Example: “Cat and Mouse Acts” is illustrated with a hand. But wait, the index finger has morphed into a huge mouse. Yet, in “My Understanding of Love between Women—or—La Macchina da Cucire” the poem is the grabber:
paper clothes stapled onto a naked woman
with an upholstery gun. Her mouth sewn
closed with a hand needle.
These, however, are exceptions. The majority of text and drawings pair evenly, though most require a bit of close inspection. Is that really a sketch of a man contorted beyond what should be possible? Yes, it accompanies “My Understanding of Love from a Man—or—The Rubber Boy (born the same year as I, 1979).” Davis is referencing Daniel Browning Smith, known as Rubberboy, a classically trained contortionist. She doesn’t stop there, and brings her voice to poems about Ella Harper, who was nicknamed Camel Girl; Erik Sprague, the body-modified Lizardman, and other sideshow performers.
Although the circus theme runs throughout, the real subject of the book is You. Davis allows us to become privy to misdeeds in a marriage, such as “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee,” which begins, “There is a hole the size of your fist in our bathroom door. My fault, I’m told, for / pushing the hinge towards your movements.” Further on, “Gravity” contains these words: “You’ve called to see if / the dresser and kitchen table are ready for you to pick up— / if our son has been split 50/50 by ink and paper cuts.”
As might be expected, the son figures in several poems, and he takes honors for ending the book on an up note in “Reborn Inside-Out, My Life Is Explained to Me by My Six-Year-Old Son”:
We will die, Mom, he says, But like star-matter we’ll regenerate. Why
do you think that is? I ask him. So we can find the joy in it, he tells me.
This first collaboration by two provocative talents is at times pretty strong stuff, and requires a shift in perspective from the reader. But it’s also marked with truth and genuine vitality.