They Used to Dance On Saturday Nights
By Gillian Devereux
Aforementioned Productions, 2012, 34 p.
The carnival performers in Gillian Devereux’s They Used to Dance on Saturday Nights (Aforementioned Productions) are always, like Robert Lowell’s prostitutes, “freelancing out along the razor’s edge”, always subject to the fatalities of their trades—knife throwing, tightrope walking, sword or fire swallowing. Entertainers are only as lucrative as the opacity of their parlor tricks and/or the chance genetic mutations of their tragedies. Freaks may “share a stomach or a torso”; may “frolic”, frighten” or “fold their bodies flat as farmland”, or an armless girl may have “a beauty in [her] strangeness that could ruin a man”. Images may be unexpectedly lovely, or transcendental: a dancing bear “soft as snow piled on pine boughs”, the salmon it’s tossed in its captivity leaping up into freedom and the constellations. Spectator and performer are a working system powered by the promise of newness, the momentary triumph of the illusory exotic.
There are also no dearth of “mutilated souls in cold morgues of obligation”, in Roethke’s phrase, variations of the quintessentially cruel ringmasters or mistress, whose
Children float in dingy beakers
Filled with blue-green bile: the dead stars
Of the dime museum, two-headed fetuses,
Stillborn monsters I carried like a thief…
To pay my way, I populated this carnival
Like Cronus, filled my belly with my own
Offspring, fed on small, disfigured bodies
Until, at last, I birthed my own meal ticket
Devereux’s text is most admirable as a metaphor for illness and survival. Many of her characters are examinations of Plath’s “magician’s girl who does not flinch”, professionals geared to stoicism and efficiency that is nothing like the seemingly effortless magic perceived by their audience. Performers themselves become spectators, housed in their own corporeality, captive audiences to the breakdowns of their own physical existences. But they are anything but passive observers. In The Act of Ignition, a girl whom “The sun hangs over [like] a tumor”
Alone in a field…
Then a flicker of light
Cuts through her, spills down
He arms and legs, chars her hair,
Crumbles her clothes to ash…
Her power developed
Suddenly: one morning she awoke,
Felt all her organs shift and spark
Like flint inside her…
To control this in time.
A single cell can incite a riot…
In Under the Big Top the limitations of the body—momentarily transcended by aerialism and dazzling feats of physical skill—are contrasted against the somehow-less-impressively powered (to the onlooker) accomplishments of nature and the cosmos:
No one notices the night sky…
No one sees
the backdrop, the shadow that shapes
_____and guards each delicate constellation.
Each star spins on invisible wire, falls
_____effortlessly into its assigned position
and not one person applauds….
I fall night after night,
_____netless and alone. I trained for this
my whole life, spent years in the air
_____learning to dive through the white
blare of spotlight; the physics of flight
_____swinging me over the bar
and farther, a solitary wheeling circle…
But nobody ever sees me…
It’s interesting to imagine copies of Devereux’s chapbook being handed out at the gate as carnival programmes; like Diane Arbus’ photographs, they tell us more than any mere propaganda ever could. Certainly this slim volume has something to teach us about magic and control, how indistinguishable the two often are from each other.