In the Circus of You

By Nicelle Davis and Cheryl Gross


Rose Metal Press
March 2015

Reviewed by Marie Curran


In the days of freak show circuses, Joan Whisnant was special. "Born without arms, Joan could change her baby's / diaper with her toes," Nicelle Davis writes in her poem "The Woman I Would Most Like to Emulate—or—Joan Whisnant, Musician and Mother." Cheryl Gross's accompanying illustration, a gray and black sketch, features long feet extending from muscled calves, negotiating a square of thick cloth around a flailing infant's pelvis. This marriage of words and art, of the grotesque with stubborn joy, is one of many that make up the unique illustrated novel-in-poems In the Circus of You. Davis continues in this poem, "Her look beneath this gift is how I / would carve marble—features of determination— / if I were asked to forge a statue of what I believe in." 

In the Circus of You is a tale of marriage and divorce with a beloved baby in the middle. But it's also a story about freaks: those with physical abnormalities in the sideshows of yesteryear, and the emotionally unwell struggling through trauma, depression, and medication. It's a look into the self when belongingness becomes a casualty. In the Circus of You considers brokenness of many stripes, but also richly ponders hope, strength, and healing.

There is tension in the word "circus." The two common definitions—a roving band of costumed humans and trained animals, performing in precision, or, total bedlam—cannot coexist, and yet they are inextricably linked. This notion swells within In the Circus of You. Late in the book, Davis's divorced and depressed female narrator has a fateful carousel experience in the poem "Riding Ponies outside the Road of Constant Return." Amidst restrained but vicious horses, two selves divide the narrator, and she is ready for change. Davis writes:

Resolute, my younger-self feeds herself to a horse.
Paint turns to flesh—rides itself out of the circle—we are

no longer defined by limitation.

These lines are as triumphant as they are disturbing, and are hopeful morsels readers can savor in a difficult work. Yet there is more to this ride.

In the Circus of You's creation holds a similar tension. Unlike some writing-art collaborations, Gross's illustrations are not subservient to Davis's poems. More often, these crudely beautiful sketches wrest a reader away from Davis's satisfying and sturdy landings—"we are / no longer defined by limitation"—back into a moment that discomfits. In one example, a faceless, androgynous body sits atop the snarling horse, as if to say, even if those who suffer learn to grasp victory, let us not forget the suffering. Memory is as important as deliverance.

This maneuver is a carefully practiced circus trick itself, as Davis and Gross explain in their moving afterward on the book's making. While it's possible to read In the Circus of You without the specifics of its creators' relationship, knowing their collaborative past with Broadsided Press enriches it. It feels important that Davis and Gross, who have both gone through divorces, liken their work together to an aerialist—Davis—jumping into the arms of her partner—Gross—with confident flight as the result.

In the Circus of You no doubt crosses genre boundaries. Simultaneously the work wedges itself in a growing tradition of women writing innovative novels involving marriage, mothering, mental health, and disappointment. Like Jenny Offill's Department of Speculation and Suzanne Scanlon's Promising Young Women, In the Circus of You is part of a movement to reshape classic themes with fragmented, sometimes lyrical, sometimes gasping language which is often smart with allusion, and always tied up in remembering. True to the form, In the Circus of You's narrator takes a peek at her mother's struggles. In the early poem "Bought a Pack of Cigarettes Today," after she bemoans her failing marriage, she has the raw realization:

I understand my mother better at times like these—know how she could drag the body of a deer under her car for miles, because she had to get away and needed all her available concentration to obey the directives of traffic signals.

Stop. Go. Slow.

Again, Gross's illustration is clearly connected, but surprising. In the Circus of You's first quarter is written more starkly and more literally than later sections. "Bought a Pack of Cigarettes Today" is no exception: addressed to the narrator's estranged husband, it is painfully direct and peppered with lines like, "You gave me HPV, but I took it willingly." However, there is one quick and abstract reference to E. B. White's Charlotte's Web. This is where Gross shines her artist's light, depicting a floating spider grasping a pig, attempting to lift it into the air as a helicopter would dangle a stretcher.

Gross's seemingly unintuitive choice here does heavy lifting. In the second act and on, Davis transitions away from the literal into grotesque and circus-themed poems. She often presents unsettling images, such as an aroused man lustily buying a slab of skin-on trout on his way home from a mermaid freak show. This switch in content is not jarring, partially because Davis has all along dropped hints of the coming chaos while setting up the concrete narrative. To complement this strategy, Gross weaves these subtleties into a sidelining tapestry of the guttural, animal pain Davis's narrator is barely keeping contained. In lovely contrast to the numbness Gross highlights in "Riding Ponies outside the Road of Constant Return," in the vitriolic anthem-like "Bought a Pack of Cigarettes Today," Gross directs viewers' eyes to an image of heroic compassion that transcends difference. This is the way forward.

Even with persistent shreds of hope, the narrator's path is harrowing. As In the Circus of You nears its climax, Davis plunges deeper into metaphor. Part three, "The Clown Act" is a foggy fight between the self and prescription medication, and Gross's illustrations here take a turn for the terrifying. The clown-as-drugs representation can feel heavy. In "The Clown in My Gut," Davis writes:

, Clown hisses
into my liver

Davis brings in messenger pigeons as indirect helpers flown from the narrator's inner-self, and thus injects mystery into a metaphor that could otherwise grow tired. Throughout the narrator's stupor, the pigeons whisper wise encouragements and hard truths, and when dead, their bones, carefully crafted into other objects, take on extra-medicinal power. Davis's language is splendid around these common birds:

                                                 Silverfish will make
bread of this pigeon until all that's left are pieces smooth
as the moon—confirmation that our centers are made
from a masonry of light.

In Gross's illustrations the pigeons, long after their deaths, look the viewer in the eye. In the thick of this daring work, when it's unclear if the narrator will survive, it is easy to become disoriented in these birds' lingering gaze. In In the Circus of You, Davis and Gross have put freaks—the different, the vulnerable, the sad, and, even themselves—on display. And like it or not, the audience is complicit in the exploitation. Readers and viewers cringe at these freaks' deformities, marvel at their abilities, and wince at their traumas. What's not expected is for the freaks to stare back. But when they do, what are they seeing?