Figures From the Big Time Circus Book
& The Book of Clown Baby
Mayapple Press, 2007
ISBN 0-932412-50-5. ISBN+13 978-0932412-508.
Reviewed by Chad Prevost
These Fruits Taste Delicious: A Review of Gerry LaFemina’s double-chapbook Figures from the Big Time Circus Book and The Book of Clown Baby.
Gerry LaFemina is a prose poet par excellence. It’s hardly news in some circles, but while the pockets of enthusiasm for prose poetry may go deep, they remain also, unfortunately, narrow. As the speaker in LaFemina’s prose poem “Figure 8. The Camel,” says: “There’s no money in being a poet, my father said. And what the hell’s a prose poet?” The speaker concludes: “I think these fruits taste delicious: slightly grainy, slightly sweet.” The slightly grainy, sweet fruits of success emerged early from LaFemina’s first chapbook of prose poems, Zarathustra in Love (2001, also from Mayapple Press). This glossy, perfect-bound collection took on a kind of underground life of its own selling well over 500 copies to date—quite a feat for any collection of poems, much less a chapbook collection of prose poems.
The double Big Time/Clown Baby chapbook itself is a delight: open it from either side and begin one book or the other, when you come to the end, flip it over and start the other. In the limited edition form (for $5 more) one can get a pop-up of the big top circus in the center. Perhaps for the apparent whimsy of the book’s appearance (yes, we judge books by their cover too!), as well as for the very trope of the circus theme itself, one might initially assume the collections will be a barrelful of absurdism or self-indulgent parody and surrealism. In fact, these are among the very characteristics of prose poetry which chase so many people off—and justifiably so.
However, it does not take long to see how the thematically linked pieces in both books contain real power—that is, they actually contain real meaning. The poems in the Clown Baby sequence are full of laughter; they contain understated and “slap-your-ass-funny” humor. Also, as they bring us back into the memories of our early childhood (as well as parenthood), they become strangely moving.
This brilliantly constructed unit of poems contains an implicit theme: the blessing of small miracles. Clown Baby himself is a kind of miracle, and, as a character, makes this book particularly memorable. The opening scene/paragraph/poem sets the tone when Clown Baby enters into his mirthless mother. Soon, she finds herself continuously “laughing, and she didn’t know why.” In “Clown Baby and the New World Gospel Ministries,” the minister who is about to perform the ritual blessing upon Clown Baby says, “Your child is possessed by an evil spirit,” because Clown Baby won’t stop laughing, but when the “serious, steel-haired man, all sweat and veins” puts his hands upon Clown Baby, he is taken by fits of laughter, and is, in a sense, “saved” much like “the jester He’d saved that time from stoning.” Perhaps most clearly, one can find this theme of small blessings in “The Miracle of the Cupcakes.” For Clown Baby’s first birthday far too many people show up than what the parents have prepared for. They are dismayed that not everyone will be able to receive a cupcake (one can hear the biblical motif set-up coming). “There is, of course, no explanation for what happens next, but everyone gets a cupcake; there are even cupcakes left over. The adults all laugh. There is only joy in their amazement.”
The amazement of this collection is the imaginative life LeFemina infuses in the incidents and accidents of Clown Baby’s life. It is not too much to say that Clown Baby is as unique and compelling a character as one will find in the broad landscape of contemporary literature. These poems invite reading and re-reading. They are tightly constructed, and, like the best prose poems do, they leave off in ways that continue to suggest.
Not to be outdone, in fact my preference by a slight margin, Figures from the Big Time Circus Book takes its inspiration from The Big Time Circus Book by George E. Sheldon (circa 1939). While Clown Baby as a character is memorable, these are memorable by their sheer imagination, diverse cast of grotesques, contemporary socio-politico settings, and the thematic trope itself, playing off of the “figures” from “the book.” Consider the opening of “Figure 4. Animal Skeleton”:
At the fairground men with stakes & mallets found it—the narrow bones, the long-faced skull, the extended ellipses of the vertebrae. They didn’t know what it was, though the side-show thin man felt an odd kinship to it, and wept openly and for the first time anyone could recall.
Herein lies but a small taste of the imagination, language-density, “grotesque” character, and understated humor. The final sentence of the poem concludes, “At the excavation site the animal skeleton lay like an ancient text waiting to be interpreted.” In fact, these poems have leapt off the page from an “ancient” circus book text. Now, it’s the readers turn to pick them up, sample them, experience the strange texture, the slightly grainy, slightly sweet taste of these big top prose poems.
Chad Prevost is author of Chasing the Gods: Prose Poems (Pudding House), Snapshots of the Perishing World(Cherry Grove), and is Co-Editor of Evensong: Contemporary American Poets on Spirituality (Bottom Dog). His poems have appeared in places such as: Rosebud, Mid-American Review, The Connecticut Review, The South Carolina Review, and Puerto Del Sol, as well as in recent anthologies Family Matters: Poems of our Families, Poets in the Their 30s, and California Prose Poems. Chad is Editor and Co-Founder of C&R Press. He lives in North Chattanooga, TN and teaches as assistant professor of English at Lee University.