Scrolling through the computer files the other night, I came across some old friends I hadn’t seen for years – had largely forgotten about – and was able to spend a pleasurable hour or so renewing our mutual acquaintance.
Not long after I started my career as a writer, a friend sent a collection of sketches she’d made when a travelling circus came to town. They were vivid and highly entertaining little drawings: the ringmaster … trapeze artiste … a clown … the high-wire rider…
And I wrote a set of short poems – or at any rate verses – to go with them, thinking it might be an amusing illustrated book for young readers.
Alas, the publisher didn’t. ‘Not poetry!’ they exclaimed, more horrified it seemed than if I’d suggested a volume of pornography. ‘Nobody reads poetry!’
When a second publisher said the same, I assumed the fault was mine, printed the poems out under the title Circus, put them in a folder somewhere, and went on with other things. Another forgotten manuscript left to gather dust.
Yet I can’t tell you what joy it gave me to rediscover them the other night. Siddie the Tumbler. Elanora the elephant (Her grandmama once carried Rajahs). Mrs Rodriguez, the bareback rider, who doubled as seamstress, ticket-seller, dog-trainer and ice-cream vendor at interval. The man on the flying trapeze (The question is: should I let her go? There is no safety net below.) And the other half-dozen performers .
For that little while our words lit up the screen, smiling and wincing as we remembered old times. Enjoying the odd line that hit the mark. Regretting and wanting to rewrite those that didn’t. Shaking up the dust and letting the images live again between us, before they settle back to sleep and dream of what might once have been.
I doubt that anything much will come of them now. But it gave me a great kick to renew my auld circus acquaintance. And before they quite pass out of mind again, let me at least introduce you to The Ringmaster. Not great poetry I grant you, but observed with much affection:
As an emperor into the blood
ripe ring he struts,
arrayed in triumph, the purple juice
upon his breath,
cracking whips, the subject world
his to command
and entertain with bread and circuses:
men, music, animals,
he is the mirror of their every eye.
those who must perform,
and those who watch on Roman holiday.
Let the games begin!
To jump, to do his will, to bow
and play with death;
to give thumbs up should he approve –
if not, thumbs down.
Photograph: Clown, 1907 postcard. Wikipedia commons.