I’ve never been a fan of circuses, or Hollywood movies about circuses. Perhaps one day after watching a TV promo for “The Greatest Show on Earth” or another 1950s’ Big Top movie in garish color – they seem substitutes for attending the circus instead of movies – I remembered that the circus is a perfect collection of archetypes.
Everything is overblown, extreme, but right within an extreme context – the strongest man, the most flexible woman, the youngest magician, the smartest elephant, bravest tamer of wild beasts, etc. Tigers and elephants from Africa and India are there, monkeys in human costumes ride white horses, women scantily clad tread the high wire, and swing from a trapeze and let go and are caught before they fall.
The players are mythic, like Greek heroes or gods, and yet they all have their own private human lives and identities aside from their embodied personas, as all of us do.
I decided a poem about a circus would allow me to use outlandish characters to tell a story of love, betrayal, loyalty, doubt, forgiveness, life and death. I began with a tryst, a daring, compulsive one, which allows the tiger to escape. I wanted to follow the hungry tiger for a while, to let his and his tamer’s adventure play out, before I returned to the Princess of the High Trapeze.
As she wonders if her true love will catch her or let her fall, if he still loves her despite her betrayal – why shouldn’t the Princess be tempted by the Strongest Man on Earth? – time slows down, as time does in desperate situations, where seconds seem like hours.
The Princess has time to remember a story from school, “The Lady or the Tiger?”, which I remembered from years ago, just as I reached the trapeze scene. That story is about another Princess and another pair of lovers, and two doors, behind one a woman, behind the other a tiger.
Does love conquer jealousy, possessiveness and loss, or should the beloved die rather than love someone else?
In a high school English class we debated how the story must have ended, but of course there is no answer and the mysterious finale stands still forever, as the doomed man decides which door to choose, if his old love has told him the truth or a lie, if she’s chosen love or death for him.
In my poem, I suppose I wanted to mix two “real” stories together, and then blend them with the written story of the lady and the tiger. I wanted to let the images flow back and forth among different identities, as if the characters were somehow reflections in a distorting mirror that wasn’t wrong but showed an alternate view, perhaps of the timeless unconscious where primordial things seem to change shape at will and share a common identity.
At the end of “The Show Goes On,” the Princess on the trapeze is the man in the story confronted by the two doors, the trapeze catcher is the Princess who has the power to save or kill, and the tiger who ate the dogs is innocent, separate from the terrible actions of men and women.
I wanted the poem to end, as does “The Lady and the Tiger,” on a note of frozen, final uncertainty that only the reader can try to solve, to look into her or his inner mirror for the answer.
How or why I finally wrote my poem remains a mystery to me, but some of the factors I’ve mentioned must have been at play.
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