In the Circus of You by Nicelle Davis and Cheryl Gross, Reviewed by Carlo Matos

In the Circus of You Cover

In the afterword to her dazzling collaboration with artist Cheryl Gross, poet Nicelle Davis says, “[W]hat is life without somewhere to run to?” and her destination of choice is the circus, more specifically, the freak show (89). Like so many great stories that feature an individual on the run, In the Circus of You—an illustrated novel-in-poems—takes the reader through a series of wonders and introduces us to a menagerie of creatures whose outward strangeness (especially as they appear in Gross’s disturbing and menacing illustrations) often gives way to comforting “normalcy,” like the giant and the legless woman who adopt a couple of kids, run a vacation camp, and have the kind of family many of us only dream about. In the journey narrative tradition, one sets off to escape fate, to find adventure or fortune only to return home to reclaim one’s rightful place. The journey, of course, may be an internal one, which is the case for the protagonist of this book, who is looking for a way to understand her feelings of otherness.

The speaker of the poems is drawn to freaks because their oddity is on the outside, like, for example, the Camel Girl, the Rubber Boy, and the last of the split-tailed mermaids, among many others. The protagonist’s peculiarity, on the other hand, is internal and is looking for a way to express itself outwardly. It seems to me that what she is doing is trying to reclaim her identity in the way the freaks seem to have done. When discussing the Camel Girl, for example, she says, “More than any, she holds me accountable for staring . . . no matter how I’ve been called an animal, I’ve never had to fight a camera for human recognition that I am of their kind” (51). Davis’s main character attempts throughout the collection to take ownership of herself, to lay claim to her body and her bones in the wake of the dissolution of her marriage to her childhood sweetheart. She says,

We never meant harm—marriage
just was
n’t our game.

(“Wings inside Our Stomachs” 7-9)

Davis makes use of this particular kind of enjambment a number of times. When she separates the negative from the contraction, the image stops being one of separation and becomes one of cleaving, where sundering and bonding coexist simultaneously.

The conjoined sisters are an interesting incarnation of cleaving. One of the sisters has died and the remaining twin refuses to have the corpse cut from her. One would assume this to be a poem about incompleteness, a poem about losing one’s other half (an obvious metaphor for her broken marriage) but it is so much more than that: “Conjoined sister at thirty masturbates for the first time. The weight of her dead sister draped next to her, she forgets the corridors of their limbs. Desire shucked off . . . Dusk covers her. Alone and complete.” What we have here is an image that reaffirms the protagonist’s desire for a new life or a new self—one in which she can be alone and complete. (49)

Her son represents the most interesting and complex manifestation of this desire to embody, to take ownership of that which is her(s). In the poem, “In the Office of Family Law, Mediation Day—or—How I learned to Pity God(s),” the speaker says, “I wait for a chance to stamp mine on our child’s forehead with something like ink, but it all smells of blood. How to end floods I wonder—how to damn half a DNA—to be completely one’s own” (52).

On a literal level, the speaker is talking about gaining custody of her child. On a biological level, she is talking about wanting to erase the genetic material the child gets from her ex-husband. But the phrase “to be completely one’s own” clearly echoes the sentiment of “alone and complete.” The issue, of course, is that the child can never be truly her own since she cannot erase the father’s genetics and though it is made of her body, it too will become increasingly independent of her will. However, since the protagonist is trying to forge a new identity in the crucible of her divorce, it is important that her boundaries extend to include her child: “People called me crazy. I told them, Come near us and I’ll take your face with my teeth—starting with your eyes” (“The Postpartum Sideshow—or—What do I Know about Being a Freak?” 58).

In the Circus of You begins with her son and ends with her son. By book’s end he is six years old, and it is he who captures this tension I have been discussing most clearly: “Inside. Outside. He doesn’t notice any difference” (“Reborn Inside-Out, My Life Is Explained to Me by My Six-Year-Old Son” 10). The son has learned what the mother has been struggling with, gleans it without effort or trouble. He is aware of death, but he sees not an ending but a chance at rebirth. When asked the purpose of the regenerative cycle, he responds, “So we can find the joy in it” (14). If the book had ended there, we could say—even if we didn’t believe it—that the protagonist has learned that even the most horrible events can have unexpected benefits. Or, we could at least say that if the speaker has not learned this lesson herself, she at least has been able to pass it on to her son and not make him a victim of her circumstance.

However, the next line (and the last line of the collection) is somewhat more ominous. Davis makes the son’s hopes for rebirth more ambiguous when she says, “Our story will happen again” (15). And though the boy in the illustration on the following page has the beginnings of a smile on his face, his eyes are black and rimmed with rodent’s teeth, which, at least to me, seems to suggest the potential that he could devour, as she says in the poem, what is left of her and finish the job his father began.

Davis, Nicelle.  In the Circus of You: An Illustrated Novel-in-Poems.  Illus. Cheryl Gross. Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press, 2015. Print.

Note: Page numbers are provided for prose poems, line numbers for stanzaic poems.