June 19, 2016

Carnival of Conflicted Souls: A Review of Amorak Huey’s The Insomniac Circus by Mindy Kronenberg

Cover Credit: Hyacinth Girl Press
The Insomniac Circus by Amorak Huey
Hyacinth Girl Press (2014)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

What is it about the Big Top, its tented skirts rippling with a symphonic swell of Thunder & Blazes, parade of peculiar yet heroic characters who defy gravity, tame wild beasts, and its degradation of the body that fascinates, thrills, and sometimes repels us?

In The Insomniac Circus, Amorak Huey bestows humanity and humility in his cast of iconic and iron-clad performers, giving voice to those whose daring acts rouse cheers or gasps from an engaged yet distanced audience. Each poem is part noir-ish narrative and confessional, a collection of Diane Arbus images turned personal vignettes. The frustrations, desires, and interior tales of the clown, acrobat, contortionist, juggler, animal trainer, trapeze artist, and others are hinted at with clever poem titles that read like funny headlines: “The Sword Swallower Wonders What’s the Point,” “The Unicyclist Wonders if He’s Found the One,” “The Human Cannonball Takes His Best Shot at Redemption,” and “The Tight Rope Walker Gets High.” While not sparing the intimate details of each performer’s wistful story, the poet grants them ownership over their own series of foibles and frailty.

Our “entrance” to events begins with “The Ticket Taker Gives and Gives & No One Seems to Notice.” Alas, the anticipation and excitation of a circus’s promise for the exotic and daring experience push crowds past the gate keeper, who welcomes in others but must remain outside the transformative event, ignored. Almost as a spectator himself, Huey writes:
“…the gift of admittance. This is what you offer. In return
you are invisible. The world rushes past your stool

hungry for something more magnificent—
gold-paved redemption, spotlight on the impossible,

moment when a body’s limits no longer hold.
Such danger. Such promise. Such soaring.”
Echoes of loneliness and fear are carefully threaded through these poems with a wistful grace, and belie the glittering or seemingly proud visages of the men and women adorned in costume and on parade. In “The Ringmaster Answers the Phone,” we are warned “It’s never / good news, this time of night—someone dead / or arrested or worse: drunk & in the mood to reminisce.” What great things are there to be announced when one’s bedroom “…smells like feet & cat food—” and each season reminds “Your whole life is a series / of the moments just before other moments—?”

“The Lion Tamer Resolves to Start Telling the Truth” has our whip-wielding, big cat trainer (who has not quite faced up to the failings of his former marriage) promising to reveal his feelings “to a certain woman in a certain city” that he’s never forgotten. He reminisces:
…that Y-shaped scar on her lower lip,
summernight warmth of her breath,
skittery touch of her fingernails.

It is her name I whisper each night
on bended knee, my neck bowed,

teeth almost tender against flesh—
the secret is pretending you are not vulnerable.
The reader is also introduced to the daring performances of those who explode and spin in the ring, and what lay beneath the bravado of the spotlight. The “Human Canonball” admits, “The only thing I had ever had going for me / was lack of fear. Violence // is a forwarding address, the next place / anyone calls home, confessional booth, // springloaded tube.” In “The Bareback Rider Gets Dressed (After a Night of Horsing Around With a Townie),” the young, restless equestrian with an “unending quest for the unbuttoned life,” comes to believe “...The best thing in her life / is this headpiece. She holds it with both hands, / careful not to crush the peacock feathers, // iridescent & impossible in the morning sun.” And the daredevil of “The Acrobat Bawls” implores:
Go ahead, tell me you know all about me,
my narrow world, my glittering costume,

the absent net beneath my feet. I am all
too familiar, pitiful as pearls, tourist

in my own skin. Insist you’ve heard this story
before. You don’t even know

my middle name. Surprised
to see me in such prosaic terms? Pretend

you could forget this moment—we know better,
this night already ripples in the breeze

& keeps a million strangers awake.
I offer myself to you, knowing you

will not resist my naked heart.
Interestingly, there’s a poem representing the audience, “The Father Sits in the Front Row with His Family & Convinces Himself That He Takes a Back Seat to No One.” Our patriarch, who suffers from his own threatened sense of masculinity, understands that “What matters is how they see you. // Everything is performance—life in the round...” and “For better or for purse, this entertainment’s costing $600.00 / & there’s nothing you can do about any of it.” This “jack of all masquerades” is reminded that “everything in front of you exists / for your pleasure. If you never turn around // you never see what lies behind.” The grand visions and thrilling performances that we seek on such a large scale may be costly to witness, but “the greatest show on earth,” is surely that of human drama. The Insomniac Circus brings this point home in each poem or “act” of this intimate and oddly-poignant collection. With its skillful combination of glittering revelry and wistful narrative, it continues to haunt the reader’s imagination.

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