Issue 22/23
cover photo of Louise Brooks
publication date 12/17/1983

Circus Child

J. C. Todd

17 in Providence       impudent
                         calliopes sang in my blood
                         dreams roared in my cells       big cats before feeding.
                         Needs trapezed me high above the carny show
of Providence. Pup-tented too long        I wanted a big top . . . .
                         Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey poled their canvas up
in Providence
                         calliopes sang on Waterman Street
                         big cats roared at the station.

Like a tuning fork whose pitch is struck
I vibrated 3 nights      top row      center ring
radiating love for cats’
                                     pulsed drive     in leaps through fire rings
                                     pure motion      poised upon the circle’s rim
                                     sprung rage       stretched out from nose to tail
I homed into the circus frequency
with a penny-ante job–

                                     I rode the elephant
through towns whose bars were all I saw thighs chaffed with sores
     the size of burger buns.
But it was all right up there. The old girl swayed like trains
     we traveled on,
her muscles mimicking the swing of cars on rails all those nights
     she rode shackled
from Tupelo to Muscle Shoals.
Once in Evanston when she dipped her trunk to drink
I slipped     headfirst

down      to bone that bridged her eyes and gazed into
a tiredness soft as sawdust heaps.
I fell.

After that      I held on
tight     through strings of shows. Electric
after hours under lights       I hosed my heat to steam
with beer.
                   Near New Orleans I got so drunk
I made some clown      become      a man for me
inside the big cats’ car.

                                        The air was musk of dust
and straw and sex. Asleep
the cats were shapes of dreams
no motion there no drive no rage
just ribs expanding
     with each drowsing breath
little cages going
and in
those jungle coats
those bars.

                       And then I knew
I drew
     my breaths
in harmony
     with them

riding that mammy beast down nameless streets   all crammed with face-
less waving kids       who roared with secret dreams
like me
but couldn’t see beneath my circus finery
that calliope which sang when I was 17 was

I was happy that year with the circus. Funny
though         I kept flying home to Providence
6 times in 9         10 months.
They let me go when my belly got so big
I couldn’t balance on the elephant.
By 18 I was home       for good
mother       to a circus child.