In July 1944, The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s big top burned to the ground in Hartford, Connecticut, killing over 100 people and injuring 700. The fire started in a corner of the tent and was dismissed by those who first saw it as a minor disturbance that would soon be dealt with. The big top was coated with over 1,000 pounds of paraffin wax, essentially creating a candle once it caught. Many died of burn injuries from raining hot wax and pieces of searing big top, but panic and stampede contributed to the majority of deaths. People waited too long to get out and became trapped. A tiny detail in Stewart O’Nan’s The Circus Fire; A True Story of an American Tragedy intrigued me. O’Nan mentions that several people were saved that day because young boys with pocket knives sliced the tent canvas, creating escape hatches. Big top canvas is apparently pretty tough, so the job wasn’t as easy as a quick swipe of the blade, but the fact of it seemed so perfect, so simple. Plus the birth imagery….
In the following poem, I tweaked the idea of boys with pocket knives. Read the poem first, perhaps, to understand the prompt, which is this: write about something (an ‘it’, a mystery, a ghost, invisible force; think ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ style) without naming that thing. Allow images and other sensory details to accumulate toward a kind of shadowy, peripheral understanding of your unnamed subject. Honestly, you don’t even have to be clear, and probably shouldn’t be, about what this ‘thing’ is yourself. The fun of writing this type of poem is allowing yourself to free associate and catalogue, you’re mixing the concrete with the invisible here, like throwing a cloak over a ghost. It’s challenging but also allows for an amount of irreverence; trying to catch a glimpse of something through the corner of your eye. I could go on and on with similes but it’s just something you have to get into the swing of and try for yourself. You could also do as I did and take a detail, or several, from life, an urban myth, or story that resonates with you and tweak it, change it, to suit your needs and create a fresh meaning. This is a great exercise for both aspiring and practicing poets. Writing begins in darkness and leads us toward understanding. As a writer, you want to be surprised; it’s not your ‘to-do list-brain’ that’s going to write a genuine poem. We’re pulling things out of the depths here; that’s the name of the game. Leave revising and tightening for another day. Most poets will tell you that their best poems don’t result from sitting down with a big idea. So, go forth in darkness. Have fun!
It Left the Room
It left the room as fact, but in the narrow
hall shadows whispered: leaf rot,
forgotten potatoes, their eyes protuberant.
It left the room as fact
but darkness and history waylaid it in the hall.
Jugs of wine followed, wine spiced
with the entire spice rack, dried oak
leaves, worm castings. The fact is,
it left the room (its first mistake)
came back story-flocked, feverish, babbling—
blanked on names, the number
of gallons, depth of graves. Like one traumatized
or in the eye of ecstasy it invented details:
how the big top burned like a candle,
how all the people would have melted inside
if it weren’t for the girls with pocket knives.