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Idolatry


ISSUE:  Summer 1982
Each spring
my father took me to the circus.
The living statues mother said
are plain indecent.
I knew full well
and tingled weeks ahead
and after.

The whole smouldering city funneled
into the crater of Madison Square Garden
big as all outdoors and topped by an overcast
of smoke and rigging.
Furtive shadows slid along the catwalks and let down
ropes and cages, towers and nets as needed
to three lower rings of sawdust and manure.
After the acrobats, the tasseled horses, and the lions’ den,
before the final human cannon roared,
exhausted stagehands erected in the center ring
a round red-curtained stage.
The jaunty house-band in its ringside box
shifted from polkas and marches
to Wagnerian idylls reduced for brass and reeds.
For the first time all afternoon
the lights went down.
I strained to see
the shrouded figures slip inside the curtains.
The spotlight like a burning glass
pinned the ringmaster on his ladder.
“La-a-a-d-d-e-e-e-s a-a-a-n-d Gen-tle-men. . . .”
The flayed voice rose and spread and praised
the next incredible event. Just in time
before he scorched the hot light died.
The bellied curtain rose. Olympus
squeaked slowly on its base.

Painted gods in tiers
stood tall and naked
beyond shame or randiness, wrapped
and revealed by gold leaf seamlessly applied
from marble eye to glistening groin.
These gaudy creatures flaunted life miraculously
stilled and still terrifying in their trembling hands,
their flicking eyes—death alive
and posing for a springtime matinée
in midtown New York.
In the dark between tableaux the ringmaster
mispronounced the titles.
I remember only one
“The Rape of the Sabine Women”—
raised swords, breasts bared, thighs
quivering. I worshipped softly
at the turning shrine and vowed
to shun all sideshows.

Each spring
my father tried to save me
from idolatry.
“After a few years performing every day
in that metallic paint, they all
get sick—lungs, paralysis,
blood poisoning. The tights they wear
don’t help at all. A crime. Someone
should stop the act.”
Tights or no tights I knew
better. Spun slowly on a pedestal
before five thousand shining eyes
those lofty gods posed proudly in their mortal
gilt to let us glimpse another world
where heroes and fair heroines
die young
of golden age
and self-exposure.

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