Rae Dee Jones reviews The Circus by Ken Bolton
by Ken Bolton
REVIEWED BY RAE DEE JONES
For thirty years Ken Bolton has shown tenacious dedication to his chosen art. Apart from producing a series of volumes of poetry of unusual consistency, he also edited the magazine Magic Sam. When I read this recent volume after browsing through some of his earlier poetry I was struck by the remarkable invisible evolution in tone and content.
Take the typical first poem from his first volume, Blonde & French (Island Press, 1978):
Living brilliantly: outside –
the green/ so blue, & the green
is so bright & the wall it is clinging to
is totally in shadow but only just
because the 3 small horizontal lines /of
louvres/ have caught the midday sun,
though they jut out only a little, & shine
a brilliant white a painterly tour de force like
3 single white strokes of a loaded brush ….
Already there is the precision and ‘objectivity’ of language, while the verse is permeated with flat, po-faced irony. The poem hints at humour, but is too severe to allow it through. The images are light and deft while the tone advises the reader that there is much to be taken seriously. Even when describing desire:
I want an insanity
to enclose me :a quote/ from Robbe-Grillet’s
The House of Assignation: Lady Eva “he will
be driven mad if she continues to give in
to his phantasies” I want that – that particular
The quote from Robbe –Grillet effectively distances the reader, and perhaps the author, from comic (or romantic, or lustful) intensity.
Now read forward thirty two years to Circus, where we find a single long poem constructed seamlessly as a novel, with themes and characters acting independently of the person (but not the manner) of the author. While the blurb acknowledges his debt to Robbe-Grillet, the imagery is much less detached. A major link throughout the poem is the search by the Assistant Foreman of a small and rather seedy travelling circus for the forever missing last tent peg. There is always this missing peg! In the last verse, he succeeds. While the search goes on, there is a lot of character development and action, much of it hilarious. My favourite character is the thoughtful elephant, who is introduced while searching for a hypodermic in his body while contemplating the possibility of having AIDS:
He hums the great Dion di Mucci tune.
Thinks of Christopher Brennan, a man killed by a tram on his way home.
Rummages in his straw.
He raises his foot,
Looks for the syringe,
But cannot find it.
The singing elephant is a wonderful comic creation who ambles about, glumly addressing the big questions of …:
When I read that doggone letter, I
Sat right down and cried: She said now daddy I hate to leave you,
But I’m in love with another guy –
Da-doot-doot doot,da doot-doot doot!
The elephant is a wonderful comic creation, who reminds me more of the cockroach Archie in the Don Marquis classic Archie and Mehitabel than Robbe-Grillet. Sexual activity is presented differently:
In the dancer’s caravan Regina Xo is naked astride a man. It is Giorgio Verzotti,
Should this be happening?! Moments later Olivia comes in.
Giorgio! She is glad to see him and soon is in the same position. See, she laughs,
Mine are much bigger than Regina’s. Regina smiles – she is making a pot of tea.
The humour is robust throughout, especially in the scenes where the strong man, Ulysse, dives into a water tank from great height:
He lived for danger, Andrea told Gina and Tomaz.
That modified tank, … Giorgio began. His dream
Was to dive in and disappear. It needed an awful lot of plumbing.
– Secret passages, side tanks …
Once he dived and much of the water had leaked away,
It took a long time to come out.
We thought the trick had worked
And he would ride up on his motorbike, smiling.
He was concussed. Julie Lautone looked in
And he was floating about on top.
Children were impressed.
Man of strength- Man of wonder.
Two characters are watching daytime television (which the elephant is also observing through a window, between their heads), a movie which could afford a wonderful opportunity for serious and slightly portentious observation. An old movie, featuring Gilbert Roland, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, about a circus. The conversation is as follows:
“One of Beckett’s favourite actors,” Attila remarks.
“Brecht, I think,” says Tomaz.
It is too stupid and they turn it off. Gina reads the men their star signs.
The elephant looks at a mouse near the caravan’s tyre.
But he does not really see it. He is thinking about Peter Lorre’s lines in Casablanca–
“Rick, Rick, you’ve got to save me!”
Then he laughs …
Ken Bolton’s poetry has evolved to the point where he has written a fine verse novel with strong absurdist elements and tight control over character, dialogue and timing. There are not many books of poetry that I could imagine being turned into a film. This is one. And it is definitely poetry.