In Federico Fellini’s early Realist film, La Strada, he uses a provincial carnival troupe as a vehicle to explore the performer’s mask, especially what he shows as the contradictions inherent in the lives of those who assume false faces for the amusement of strangers. The strong man of the troupe, played with great sensitivity by Anthony Quinn, is a confused and violent man, as much a victim of his strength as the beneficiary of it. His inept forays into tenderness are overwhelmed by the mysterious depths of a simple-minded woman he attempts to pursue.
The results are subtly tragicomic, a demonstration of the disruptive power of contradiction. It’s an easy enough dynamic to set up, but one that finds its artistry in nuance, the crosshatching found at the edges of a masterful artist’s broad strokes.
Michael Harris sets up the props for a similar exercise in his new book, Circus. The first dozen or so of its poems take the form of monologues in which the inner lives of various members of a circus troupe are revealed—the Bearded Lady, the Trapeze Artist, the Dog Trainer… you get the idea. Harris does little to explore the psyches he opens in this way beyond the all too familiar—these people are laughing on the outside and crying on the inside. Harris chooses to make comedy of these confessions, a comedy that comes off as bitter, the kind of humor that turns human pathos into farce. “Everybody sees me / …but if they could get / inside my head they’d see that sideways / I am just trying to keep my balance / like one of those rats in a treadmill.” As hackneyed as this speech is, with its tired similes and predictable conclusions, it’s unfortunately typical of Harris’s effort to capture the double-edged nature of lives lived behind masks. Instead of describing the existential disappointment at the heart of a divided life, he settles for simplistic psychological clichés.
Harris soon gives up this unproductive trope, and turns his hand to other subject matter. This move produces the kind of poetry characteristic of 1950s-era American writing workshops, where working class students wrote blank verse poems that alternated classical references with macho vulgarisms. In a poem about James Joyce, for instance, Harris writes, “Ah Jim, you addlepated / well-hung stud, how thin the wire / you wobbled along.” Apparently, Harris feels he must eschew high-mindedness when dealing with a figure like Joyce. It would be simply too square to deal with him with respect. Though he gives a nod to the Irish master’s high-wire act, he insists on doing so in terms of venery, and by borrowing Joyce’s own demotic language. But he lacks linguistic inventiveness of his own, and the poem ultimately fails the Joycean test of being effortlessly polymathic. Later on, however, in the same poem, he strikes an uncharacteristicly somber note when he observes that “(God) collected you from your troubles and took you up / as soon as the river stopped running…”
What is often missing from Harris’s poems is the essential mystery whose emanation in language must suffuse the heart of any poem. Harris’s poems disclose too much, and withhold too little. They’re beaten until every detail has been flailed from them—hide, bone, and hoof. Certain prose writers, like Michael Ondaatje, are called poets by virtue of the glittering language of their sentences. Michael Harris is a poet who is more precisely a prose writer. The meter of his poems notwithstanding, they can seem arbitrarily shaped to the form of poetry, the page’s far edge containing their energy too tightly when a less constricting form might set them free. Harris is at his best when he searches his own heart for what’s gathered there. When the circus has left town, when all the stereotypes are swept away, it’s then that Harris finds his true voice, at home, beside water, when he writes of going fishing with his son:
…not much here. Except this one
snapshot of concentration; this distillation
of persistence and—may his father
say it?—the very image
of what is lovely in the world.
My shining little boy.
Roger Sauls lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His most recent book of poems is The Hierarchies of Rue from Carnegie Mellon University Press.