Commentary

There Is No Visible Circus

by Posted on February 16th, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Cover of Cave Wall 6.

Jennifer Atkinson’s “A Leaf from the Book of Cities”— an ekphrastic poem written after Paul Klee‘s painting of the same name—caught my attention in the most recent issue of Cave Wall, so I wrote to Atkinson and asked if she would give me 50 or so words on the piece. I asked her what, if anything, in Klee’s painting inspired her to write the poem. Here’s what she said:

Paul Klee, painter and teacher of painting, wrote that “Art does not reproduce what is visible, but makes things visible.” I took his advice to heart. In the painting that gives this poem its name, there is no visible circus or tent or torn handbills, but there is a simple circle sun at the top and a stylized city of rickety, ready-to-fall buildings below. If the circus does come to Klee’s cunieform-built city, I wouldn’t advise attending.

Below is Atkinson’s poem from the issue.

A Leaf from the Book of Cities

after Paul Klee

It is between the hours,

the bells in the mouths of the steeples emptied.

Signs are posted everywhere, torn handbills

—TRAPEZE!  LIONS IN CAGES!  TATTOOED SNAKES,

SHAVED BEARS!  PINK DOGS ON HORSEBACK!

Straw bits stipple the alleyways.

In the square, a white canvas pavilion,

bannered, built to be struck,

barely luffs in the waiting. Pollen

gathers on its seams, on window sills and windshields,

on ponds and pond-lilies, on heat-stunned

pigeons as still as if limed to their perches.

The sun, a flat-head tack, holds up,

holds shut, a skinflint cloud, but soon

that cloud will fill, swell, pour down rain,

and rain will draw rivers on the pollened

windows, rinse off the dusty orchard.

Rain will pelt the bells into whispers,

soaking, dragging, weighting down the wide,

one-ring-circus tent, bending its flimsy poles,

straining the guy ropes, the knots,

and uprooting the tent pegs. Soon,

the storm, long awaited, will open

over the city, over the bears and lions.

The clowns in lard-white faces and fiery wigs

will turn their cartwheels just as practiced

under the low-slung dripping canvas, under

the swagged nets of the acrobats

flying in sync. The city, grateful for distraction,

applauds, laughs, oohs and ahs, the parents

watching with joy their joyful children.

The master, hat and cane in hand, can’t bear

to stop their pleasure before the last bow,

the last roar, the last cannonshot that reads

BOOM in the point-blank silence. So

the citizens are in their seats like unstrung puppets,

clacking, when the net and the canvas skies fall.