Cradle of the American Circus: Poems from Somers, New York Cradle of the American Circus: Poems from Somers, New York
In their most recent books, local writers Laurence Carr and Jo Pitkin delve into Hudson River Valley history for creative purposes. Both books are generic hybrids, embedding prose narrative and poetry in historical facts and contexts. Carr offers readers an unusually structured novel, frequently interrupting the action of its plot to interpolate archival records (chiefly property titles and inventories), prose poems, and haiku. Pitkin offers a collection of poems, each printed alongside excerpts from the historical documents inspiring it—a medley of materials including letters, diaries, newspaper ads, bills of sale, tombstone epitaphs, lithographs, paintings, posters, and related memorabilia. Both authors take readers more than a century into the past, exploring economic and social forces that influenced the Mid-Hudson region during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both books also highlight rural landscapes and experiences: Carr’s story is situated on the western bank of the Hudson River, near Plattekill; Pitkin’s poems are set on the eastern side, in Somers and the surrounding countryside.
As its title indicates, Jo Pitkin’s book celebrates the heritage of Somers as the “cradle of the American circus.” Ably researched and scrupulously documented, the project successfully integrates artistic and historicist impulses. Pitkin begins by introducing readers to Hachaliah Bailey (1775-1845), who bought an elephant “for a song” early in the 1800s, intending to exploit its brute strength in working his stony farm: “she’ll sure haul my weighted crop and more” (3). He shipped her “up the churning Hudson on [his] sloop” and soon discovered that exhibiting this exotic beast to an astonished public was more profitable than hiding her away in his fields (33). She proved to be “worth her weight in stares,” yielding “rumor, gossip, cash” (33). Bailey’s entrepreneurial spirit launched the menagerie business: He was “the first keeper of the rare and the wild” (34). Gradually, he added more animals to his show, and his success attracted others to “the fledgling yet lucrative traveling menagerie business” (52). In addition to elephants, exhibits featured tigers, monkeys, and bears, side by side with trained horses and dogs. Exhibitors competed to acquire ever more unusual beasts: a giraffe, a cheetah, a rhinoceros. In a poem called “Safari,” Pitkin creates a memorable image of this ever-growing “pageant” of involuntary immigrants: “bearded gnus \ stream across a marbled continent \ like a river that constantly flows, \ like the lymphatic Hudson River” (62).
Electing to compose most of her poems in the form of dramatic monologues, Pitkin brings her characters vividly to life, lending immediacy to historical events. In this way, too, she is able to reveal the economic motivations that fueled the circus business (which left abundant relics in the form of “yellowed receipts,” “bills of sale,” and “ticket stubs”) without imposing twentieth-century notions of global ecology on nineteenth-century sensibilities (100). Thus the “Flatfoots” (members of a “powerful syndicate of showmen”) put forward their views, unmediated by explicit judgments on the part of the poet: “We import, sell, and lease beasts / from Asia, Africa, South America,” they declare (81). “We manage control, and promote / menageries”; “we front cash to foot the bills”; “we buy in, sell out, loan, and deal, /capitalize on Darwin’s infinite supply” (81). The long list of money-oriented verbs employed by these financiers to characterize their activities sufficiently indicates that profit motive, rather than zoological passion, explains their interest in exotic animals. Unabashedly pursuing “the main chance” they “split \ stock shares / in hyenas, zebras, polar bears” (79, 81).
Poems focusing on individual captive animals suggest how their living conditions were constrained by ignorance or indifference. Pitkin addresses the tiger “Nero,” for example, noting how he bares his teeth in “ivory rage,” pacing a cage constructed of “thick bars above and below / With a compulsive’s repetitious steps” (37). “Elegy” mourns all the animals who were “packed like gold bars in a box,” who would “never again smell Africa,” who were forced to endure miserable and unhygienic conditions: “all alone / with their shit, scabies, acrid straw” (63). At the same time that the poems castigate early zoo-masters for greed or callousness, however, they communicate the wonder these “never-before-seen” creatures excited in American spectators (79). In an era without photography or air travel, an ostrich or a jaguar truly was an amazing sight. Traveling circuses offered ordinary, small-town people a chance to observe living representatives of a distant and alien world. Pitkin’s poems help readers marvel again at an elephant munching potato peelings in a Somers barn or cattle drovers taking zebras and giraffes from town to town. Incongruously, the Hudson River Valley became home to a host of displaced animals, to the unlikely and “heavy ark” of the first American menageries (56).
Less obviously exotic in subject matter than Pitkin’s book, Laurence Carr’s Pancake Hollow Primer introduces readers to Frank, who has inherited “a Hudson Valley house” (19). Frank’s back-story is sketched out only cryptically: He has served in the army and suffered “stress disorder,” endured therapy, and drifted (19). Inheriting his great-uncle’s house gives him a place to go and a reason to be there. More important than the house itself are its contents. As Frank discovers, the place is a reservoir of the accumulated possessions of generations of packrats. Every room, not excepting attic, cellar, and barn, is filled with the detritus of a hundred years or more. The narrative is interrupted more than once by long lists of the things Frank finds and inventories, much of it outdated, useless, broken, or quixotic: “eighty-four rotting tires,” “one divination wand,” “one box, spent cartridges,” “two headboards without a bed,” “four plastic Mr. Peanut mugs,” “one postcard, dated August 9, 1951: ‘Am having a wonderful time. . .’” (14, 15, 16, 17, 53). The central problem the novel presents concerns the fate and significance of this colorful, variegated legacy: Frank must decide what to do with it and consider what, if anything, all this “ephemera so close to dust” might mean to him (4).
Initially he plans to empty the house; he announces a yard sale of gigantic proportions. When the first customer arrives, however, he finds himself in the grip of a “top-notch anxiety attack,” and inexplicably reluctant to sell anything (51). He cancels the sale, his anxiety recedes, and he begins thinking of the house’s contents as a “collection” rather than junk (49). His great-uncle, he recognizes, was not just an “accumulator” but a “curator” and “caretaker,” one who “knew what each piece was and how it fit together with another piece and what it was used for and what had come along, through progress, the Grim Reaper of Technology, to make it obsolete” (47, 49). Great-uncle Funtz “had seen the value in it all,” and now Frank, too, begins to redefine his legacy as “treasure” (53). He perceives himself, comfortingly, as “another object among objects and the newest that the house would perhaps accept for safekeeping” (53). Gradually he sheds his past, “his disposable life,” and begins to think of himself as part of the history of this place (35). For all its apparently random character, the conglomeration of things in the house represents a microcosmic historical record. Frank, in his turn, begins accumulating apparently useless objects, preserving them as a “time capsule” for some future tenant of the house “to decode” (190).
If the house and its contents connect Frank to human history and human community, the land around the house serves as a link to the natural environment. “Surrounded by trees, nearly seven acres’ worth,” he enjoys a view that extends from “the foot of the Catskills” to the Shawangunks (105, 106). He has become the proprietor of a forest of “green-jeweled crowns,” a never-ending abundance of uncultivated grasses, flowers, and shrubs. The non-human population (including foxes, skunks, and turkey vultures) provides other sources of interest. Watching “the resident skunk,” for instance, “a bizarre creature all white from head to tail,” Frank decides it looks like “the animated wig of George Washington, ambling across the yard” (124). Subtly, inexorably, the place lays a spell upon him. “The land surrounding Frank had acquired a richness layer by layer over the decades, dark and deep, with a hint of a Tintern Abbey ramble and bowered by faerie rings” (107). He responds with restoration efforts, reopening paths, repairing a dry stone hearth. He discovers that “there was a lot to be done,” and the work lends healthful purpose to his days (160).
Setting provides the stuff of the plot, and it fuels character development as well. It also appears to influence the book’s anomalous structure. The inventories, conveyances, deeds, and poems inserted at intervals cause the book to resemble the heterogeneous collection of things its protagonist inherits. The non-narrative elements lend texture to the whole but cannot be wholly absorbed into it; they function like raisins and nuts in a bowl of oatmeal, providing small, indissoluble nuggets of flavor. Carr’s poems often muse on topics relevant to his narrative, but they do not carry it forward. For instance, a haiku comments indirectly on the metamorphosis Frank is undergoing:
Braking ground like breaking bread.
Hands shape the brown dough.
A recipe as old as earth. (147)
Original in conception and design, the book has won a Next Generation Indie Book Award. Its subtitle, “A Hudson Valley Story,” indicates that evocation of place is central to its purposes. Readers familiar with the region are bound to derive extra pleasure from its local references and particulars.
-- Judith Saunders, Marist College