Sunday, August 2, 2015

In the Circus of You - Nicelle Davis/Cheryl Gross (Rose Metal Press)

Today's book of poetry:
In The Circus Of You.  Poems by Nicelle Davis.  Artwork by Cheryl Gross.  An Illustrated Novel-in-Poems.  Rose Metal Press.  Brookline, Massachusetts.  2015.

"An open window lives in you.  Find it."
     from As The Pill Is Taken

What a strange and beautiful universe it must be inside the heads of Nicelle Davis and Cheryl Gross. Although they are not sisters, to my knowledge, we here at Today's book of poetry are fairly certain they are conjoined twins.  I suspect they are joined at the backs of their heads.

Davis writes monster good poems, many of them about people who are perceived as the monsters among us.  Gross gives vision to the dreams, illustrates these nightmares.  Or perhaps it is the other way round.  The artwork of Cheryl Gross is like a marriage of Ralph Steadman and the Canadian painter Jane Martin when she was doing her cabbage-patch bondage thing.  It is a startling combination and works like a maddening charm.

These poems search the lives of the marginalized, the abnormal, they venture into the peep shows and freak shows at the margins of popular culture and acceptance and then make them blare beautiful. Davis gives voice and Gross gives vision.

Bought a Pack of Cigarettes Today

At this distance, street lamps are reduced to strands of Christmas
lights strung between windows
where televisions are erupting like fireworks from the eyeholes of
tract homes. A lit cigarette reflects
as a birthday candle off the surface of my windshield. Fighter jets
pass as the slowest moving stars--their
engines low moans--loud as breath in my ear. A semi-truck passes
as a streak of light chasing flight. Beneath me, red
ants are carrying the body of a black ant to their underground city.
If I didn't know hunger, I would think they were leading a funeral
procession. If I didn't know limitation, I would think the world
was in celebration of loss. It is
cold. Tonight. Please. Let me clarify.
I'm in an empty lot--next to a suburban neighborhood--alone
leaving you--
that is--three vacancies placed next to a thousand homes. When

I say
"a" cigarette, I mean "mine." When I say "my"
windshield, I mean "the car's."
There is distinction in ownership.
Guilt belongs to me. You gave me HPV, but I took it willingly--
wanting to believe in the religious alchemy of becoming one
flesh--put on cancer like relief. Impossible. Love. For me. There are
places in the sky untouched by shine. And this is what I focus on.
But must search for these rare absences between structures made
for together. Looking for dark

I catch sight of a couple making love in an upstairs window. The wind
is a torrent; I am wet from its intangible hands on my thighs. We are
done with each other. I recognize. I drove this far out of town to hide
from our son. Sometimes I choose cigarettes over tofu and sit-ups.

I understand my mother better at moments 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.

I imagine the naked man in the window is being given direction. I have
nowhere to go. Tonight is your turn with our family. Ours is a separate
matter. You tell me I'm leaving too fast. I say,
I can't think right with the pain of my own teeth at my hands. I need to

stop eating cancer--
need to read books about spiders saving pigs to my son--
need to stop dragging a corpse every time I search for
a place to be. Quiet nights. Birds
are sleeping in their twig cages built from the down of other birds. Harvested
from bones. Their chicks blanketed in another's insulation. I long for

the friendship of morning, to see its red currents seeping through my closed
eyes. To see myself divide. To have my shadow-self--
proportioned as a little girl with giant arms reaching for warmth. Again. I wish
to make comrades of variance. Light and shadow never stop touching. Again.
I flip a lucky. Spit the yoke of mucus. Wonder if this leaving will ever end.


These poems are beautifully bruttish sledgehammers and as a result I wanted to break my own rules. Today's book of poetry always reveals the three poems that most resonate from my reading -- today my page # list of poems to share went like this: 8, 21, 22, 40, 44, 47, 47, 57, 58, 84.  I write down the page # only when I think I have a poem that HAS to be shared and I always have my THREE POEM RULE at the back of my mind.  The hits just kept on coming.

In the Circus of You was such a joy to read.  You start in and soon realize you are all tangled up in the odd sadness that the real world and poetry can bring, you realize that Davis is nailing some startling
truths with her hush-honey-harsh vision.  Cheryl Gross climbs across and over the page like a gone mad Gahan Wilson.  In the Circus of You is an excellent place to find yourself.

The Woman I Would Most Like to Emulate--or--
         Joan Whisnant, Musician and Mother

Born without arms, Joan could change her baby's
diaper with her toes. Her parents, refusing to see
their daughter as a helpless girl, taught her how to
make beauty with her feet--cut paper dolls and
strum guitar chords. She wore love like a second
face--one she would offer to the newborn placed
beside her. 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.


TBOP is generally NOT a fan of illustrated poetry.  As trite as it sounds, In the Circus of You is exceptional, rules do not apply.  See earlier poem list.  

This book, and Nicelle Davis, were in no small way influenced by the Tod Browning film, cult classic, Freaks (1932).  The movie offers up the intonation "We accept you, one of us!" and these poems echo that most reasonable and desirable mantra.  Inclusion.  However strange versus the supposed norm -- we all long to belong, to be accepted, to be loved.

My Understanding of Love between Women--or--
                      La Macchina da Cucire

is a show seen on YouTube. You watch
paper clothes stapled onto a naked woman
with an upholstery gun. Her mouth sewn
closed with a hand needle. In the back-
ground, string instruments strike dissonance.
A voice repeating the body is dead. But
you see her blink. Another woman acts
upon her. With each stitch you see them
unite. She is obviously in pain. Other-
she, obviously considerate of this pain. Each
flinches slightly at contact, but does her best
not to acknowledge the ins and outs of thread.


I found so much pained tenderness in these poems (and drawings), so much hope after hope has been defiled.  The poems in In the Circus of You have an intensity all their own -- and this gets ratcheted up by the drawings.  Davis and Gross got inside each other's skins to create this.

With all the ugly complications of life pounding down, the grotesque twists of fate that await those that dare to dream, Davis has found a way to elicit hope.  The abnormal world one expects to find behind the canvas of the peep show turns out to be our world after all.

In the Circus of You lets us know that each of us is searching for acceptance regardless of our beautiful imperfections.

Reborn Inside-Out, My Life Is Explained to Me
                  by My Six-Year-Old Son

Reborn for exposure, my body's been redesigned for uncensored
feeling: a sneeze or hiccup comes as a sheet of ice or a bed on fire.

Eyes inverted, the optic nerves reach like roots beyond me, I under-
stand the unseen scars of invisible knives--those rodents' teeth,

those crows' bills; natural insertions. The red of it is raw; the surface
glistens like sap gnawed out from trees--wounds that outshine even

the sun--these wet lights are my earthbound constellations. What is
left of me, my son walks next to on his way to school. He tells me he's

learned, Where rain and babies come from; he says, It's all the same,
really. Inside. Outside. he doesn't notice any difference. He says,

Race ya, and we run into a storm of babies--falling. Life absorbs
quickly as water into earth and all is an unstaged show of growth.

We will die, Mom, he says, But like star-matter we'll regenerate. Why
do you think that is? I ask him. So we can find the joy in it, he tells me.

Our story will happen again.


Today's book of poetry made sure that everyone in the office got a shot at reading this.  Everyone loved it except Milo.  We sent him on fools' errands.  TBOP has nothing but raves, nothing but applause for the team of Nicelle Davis and Cheryl Gross.  We adored this book.

Nicelle Davis

Cheryl Gross

Nicelle Davis is a California poet who walks the desert with her son J.J. in search of owl pellets and rattlesnake skins. The author of two other books of poetry, her most recent book, Becoming Judas, is available from Red Hen Press. Her first book, Circe, is available from Lowbrow Press. Another book of poems, The Walled Wife, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in 2016. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Beloit Poetry Journal, The New York Quarterly,PANK, SLAB Magazine, and others. She is editor-at-large of The Los Angeles Review. She has taught poetry at Youth for Positive Change, an organization that promotes success for youth in secondary schools, MHA, and with Volunteers of America in their Homeless Youth Center. Recipient of the 2013 AROHO retreat 9 3/4 Fellowship, she is honored to work as a consultant for this important feminist organization. She currently teaches at Paraclete and with the Red Hen Press WITS program. Visit her website here.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Cheryl Gross is an illustrator, writer, and motion graphic artist living and working in the New York/Jersey City area. She is a professor at Pratt Institute and Bloomfield College.
Cheryl received her MFA from Pratt Institute. Her work has appeared in numerous films, TV shows, publications, and corporate and museum collections, including: The Museum of the City of New York, The New York Times, The Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, Circe, and Becoming Judas, among others. She wrote and illustrated the novel The Z Factor. Visit her website here.

“Nicelle Davis’ newest book mythologizes pain, making grief, anger, disgust, and fear bearable by transforming them into finely wrought poems. These poems are filled with sharp edges, dissections, illusions, and images of flight, both in their language and in the ways they occupy the page. They are perfectly matched by the drawings of Cheryl Gross, who translates Davis’ poetry into an equally grotesque, equally eloquent visual language. In the Circus of You is a visceral spectacle of controlled excess; it dismantles the three rings we use to contain our most domestic horrors and shows us the way through vulnerability to release.”
     —Evie Shockley, author of the new black

“Accompanied by Cheryl Gross’ illustrations of stretched flesh and biomechanical anatomies, In the Circus of You writhes in a fever dream of divorce, depression, and an undercurrent of poverty. Nicelle Davis directs a cast of disfigured pigs, desiccated pigeons, and circus freaks in poems whose forms are often cinched with wasp-waisted girdles or filed into jagged angles. Never simple oddities, these afflicted characters and musical poems amount to a harrowing account of loss and how one has to fracture herself in private to appear unbroken in public. Don’t miss Davis’ acts of lurching grace and terrible beauty.”
     —Douglas Kearney, author of Patter

In the Circus of You - Trailer
video:  Rose Metal Press


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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