Zhivàkos the Horseman
This circle of grass needs to be sited just right – superlevel, softhard, southnorth.
Horses are picky. Shires, Shetlands, they’ve attitude just like you and me.
Making circus isn’t about our own people’s pleasures, not when there are beasts.
Beasts come first and last. On a one to ten the horses are eleven, twelve.
We’ve a camel too, scatty skutsome creature, who thinks she’s horse.
The circle needs to be compass-correct, that means me standing centre
while the ringmaster strides around me with string and a hundred stakes
one hammered in every two paces, every two paces one hammered in.
Then we rig everything around the ringside in old order, the big tent,
four king poles, twelve queen poles, all the spaghetti of the electrics,
spotlights, winches, pulleys, the silver thread, stalls, circle, costumes, mirrors …
Then we might think about eating unless the animals need foddering first
which falls to me and my boy who’s over there with his whip. That’s him
snicking grass from the ground, from its sockets. That’s his first trick.
In a year my boy’ll have twenty tricks. Then he’ll be after my act.
After my act as barrel-walker there’s my turn on the silver thread, more subtle
than my turn with those fantailed doves, dementing dogs or hoop-hurling.
I do ten acts solo, six more with my sister starring as The Starlight Sisters.
I look in that mirror with that big hundred-watter and I don’t know myself.
That’s eleven different names, that’s sixteen costume changes and they say
we don’t work hard. That’s what the police said when they gave the court order.
‘Left the matter in our hands.’ One day’s notice to strike camp and shove off.
The act with the glitterball, that’s my favourite, when I’m up in that steel star
swirling sixty spins a minute for a full two minutes, and that glitterball’s
spattering silver stars over my body until I’m almost imaginary. Dazzling.
What’s hardest is a hurt, sprains say, crying cramped in the caravan for weeks
overhearing applause from the canvas through the open door, that’s pain,
or hearing the claps of rain on the van’s roof when the show’s over.
I was down in the industrial estate with my sister for small animal food,
the vet for the dogs. There are swastikas scratched on every circus poster.
On every circus poster, let’s face it, my face. Not Mick’s face. Not Mike’s face.
Why is that? Is it because I am so handsome? You can say that again. Is it
because I am so handsome? There’s international clown code in that decision.
Each clown has his face painted onto an eggshell and no two eggs are alike.
Which is why I’m up in lights on the town’s lampposts and not Mick or Mike.
I’ve heard some horror stories about this town. Have you heard the one
about the bent coppers? In the end they used pliers. I’ve been promoted.
Mick and Mike got nabbed with their mitts in the mopus, so. I am Pierrot.
Arlecchino, Pierrot and Auguste. Mike and Mick swiped the first parts
but I was an august Auguste. I was the straight man the audience likes
who catches the first pie or bucket but doesn’t pine or make a racket.
I am Arlecchino. Where is Auguste now? I am afraid of Mick and Mike
but their faces lied. They work somewhere dead now, like Shropshire.
What’s that noise? Is the cat at the door or the wind? Or the wind’s cats?
My face is clean. My hands are clean. I’m dead. It’s raining dogs out there.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.