Cirque d’hiver

Douglas Oliver

after Kenneth Koch

Agence France-Presse took my girls to the winter circus
– that’s Paris’s Cirque d’hiver – 1970 or 71,
having already given them a clockwork train set in breakable plastic
as part of the exploitation of its collaborateurs.
I could mention the usual football-playing poodles nodding balloons into goals
but I suppose we journalists were a bit like that:
lines of typewriters rattling and jumping on the long steel desks
in between the stuttering teleprinter banks.
The German desk alongside added one or two to the women
whom the males on our English desk tried hard to make scandalous.
Someone had met a couple of post-teenagers on the night ferry,
and they hung around, probably getting laid on the international
journalist scene. Everyone randy – and sexist goes without saying. At the circus,
a troupe of acrobats, sausage-skinned in uncooked pink, kept extruding
each from the other like emerging nougat, and that stays in the mind.
Life was very indiscreet but I kept mostly clear of indiscretions.
One talented desker would arrive with dried blood on his forehead
and invite any neighbour sub down to Les Finances for beers.
For a few hours his typewriter would turn in
crisp news copy as in his great days as a Reuters war correspondent,
but more beers and poem-shaped texts might emerge; one announced:
‘President Nixon said to President Nixon today.’ Those were days
when Sihanouk was losing Cambodia and Nixon-Kissinger were meditating
the notorious secret bombing. Out in the world many I wrote about
had died violently or were killing others: handy words were
‘strafe’, ‘dawn raid’, ‘shook’ or ‘decimated’. In the circus,
as the knife-thrower’s assistant creaked round on the jerky wheel
the word I thought of was ‘steack haché’, and I didn’t like myself for it.
At the agency you got axed if the headmasterly Jacques Lapiné,
who scrutinised all newcomers’ copy, thought you couldn’t make the grade.
A Caribbean on the Spanish desk had served in Castro’s foreign ministry:
he’d complained the revolution was for Latins only, not the Blacks.
At the back sat the Outre-Mer team and certain éminences grises, very stolid.
But I admired most gentle Maurice Chanteloup on our desk
who’d been in North Korean prison camps, spoke six languages,
and would read Horace at idle moments – he was paid less bonus than I was,
though imitating news agency style was no more natural to me
than writing imitation Kenneth Koch poems about circuses is natural.
I felt rather stupid at AFP, compared with, say, the brightest young star,
Jon Swain, who at 23 was dangerously earning scoops in Vietnam,
whereas I would get an Italian earthquake into the Asahi Shimbun,
a tiny success which removed Lapiné’s supervision soon after arrival.
French teleprinter operators cleared the desks that Christmas night
and served a four-course midnight dinner: by 4 a.m. the English subs
still hadn’t sent out any news. I hurried onto the wires
a story about a woman on trial in Egypt who’d given birth in the dock.
She instantly named the baby ‘Justice’.
I never felt comfortable with the intellectual aggression
of some journalists when drunk: a going-away party in the Vaudeville
was likely to end up with a fight in the toilets.
Yes, it really was another kind of circus. Earlier at the Cirque d’hiver,
by the way, the banked crowds one moment became a maelstrom
with a circle of light bathing the animal cage at the bottom
where hell-browed lions and tigers, using their heels for elbows,
crept along poles of wood, pawing each other and snarling at the whip.
Suddenly I noticed the animal trainer, half out of control, was sweating with fear.
I wondered if AFP was treating my girls
to the spectacle of someone being eaten for Christmas dinner.
My girls kept chewing their candy floss, not especially concerned.
I didn’t then know Kenneth Koch’s two poems, ‘Circus’.
in which life’s parade keeps passing on by without too much justice
and people keep dropping out of the parade.