Review by Mindy Kronenberg
– Love, its promise and disillusionment, episodes of unexpected whimsy and deep despair, is masterfully orchestrated into a carnival of words and images in this distinctive collaborative effort by Nicelle Davis and Cheryl Gross. In the Circus of You bravely shares the disassembling of a marriage and the rebuilding of the self, the deconstruction of the familiar-turned awkward gestures of domestic routine, while it takes the reader on the path to a place of strengthened resolve, persistence, solace, and, ultimately, survival.
Borrowing from the frightening visages and self-conscious discomfort in visiting a freak show, the poet and artist seamlessly intersect at each juncture of marital dissolution, revelation, and redemption. The reader moves cautiously through each of the four sections of poems as a visitor to a progression of sideshow stalls, witness to the sharp dissections of memory and confusion, and a contortionist’s skillful resistance against the pull of emotional instability. For all of its honest struggle and defiance, it is not pretty, but often gloriously grotesque—and its resultant pageantry (captured in both startling narration and drawings) is determined to fend off chaos.
Within each section are poems that metaphorically reference birds, fish, domestic beasts, pets, the primal and cultivated urges that long to escape or obey, find equilibrium in a world tilting against its own natural rules. We begin with a section called “The Day-to-Day Circus,” the loss of marital intimacy, the disintegration of the family unit, and the uncertain dangers of the future. In “I Drive Our Son around Every Day at Noon,” the poet watches the boy as he sleeps, unaware of his surroundings (including a recent animal slaughter on the rustic property to their rented home):
I lift our son from
the backseat. His chest rising, collapsing, in time with
bird wings—sound of throwing knives—edges rotating
in air, without the treat [sic]of striking.
In “Dreams against Absence,” the disturbance of events are roused in surrealistic dreams that echo the earlier slaughter, and begins, in a section called “First Night Without my Son,”: “I gather the scent of my husband like a bedsheet made of mice. Awake, the smell/of our family scurries out from the cracks in the walls. I cry this warmth made of little/ heartbeats—same as I cried for the empty womb once our child was born.”
In “After a Fight,” the poet’s feral temperament releases and retracts the claws of bitterness (“The cat curled at my center catches fire—light swells/ in the kittens’s red belly. … The pet of/my innards paws the scent of sun-cooked fish… I call/the cat back into my mouth.”), and “Cat and Mouse Acts” cleverly uses fragmented enjambments to emphasize a disruption in marital intimacy:
You taught your hands to move softly as thieving
mice, lifting the lids of my
eyes while I slept, so even my dream-self would
know you. Now there is
n’t a night that can coax you into our bed, is
n’t any of me that can
forget the cat-weight of sleep, pouncing.
Davis’s language throughout is brutally honest as it is beautiful, and Gross’s black and white illustrations are strangely endearing as they are alarming, wrought from personal parables of epic intensity. The difficult transformations of everyday existence harden the poet’s resolve to fight reluctance and maintain a palpable, grounded experience, as in “I’ve Decided to See the Physician,” where she admits “I don’t want to disappear./ I want to feel my mouth on a hot/edge—to taste and know dark flavor–/separate from prayers spoken in genuflection against/you. ..”
Section II, “Recruiting Talent for the Appropriation Circus,” presents historic portraits of the deformed and dehumanized as the poet examines them within her own sense of alienation and affection for her freakishness, and empathy for these sad but spirited souls. It is an unsettling but touching homage that makes us wonder how vulnerable, peculiar, or fiercely loving we have to become to be considered truly human. The last two sections, “The Clown Act” and “Beyond the Three Rings is the Circus My Selves Dream of” help to slow the strains and spin of the calliope and bring us back to equilibrium, to the self reconstructed, and a mother’s unobstructed love.
In the Circus of You
Poems by Nicelle Davis,
Artwork by Cheryl Gross
Rose Metal Press
2015, Paper, 94 pages
Mindy Kronenberg is an award winning poet, writer, and critic with over 450 publication credits world-wide. She teaches writing, literature, and arts subjects at SUNY Empire State College, edits Book/Mark Quarterly Review, and is the author of Dismantling the Playground (Birnham Wood) and Images of America: Miller Place (Arcadia).