Carnival Music

Matthew Olzmann

Was it the clown suit that freaked them out?

No. Not the suit.

That wouldn’t explain why, at the State Fair,

even the other clowns — who looked like him — avoided him.

Seventeen would tumble from the same miniature car,

and he, alone, would fall from another.

A man has lost his job.

He can walk on stilts like a saddle-billed stork.

He can wobble on the unicycle like an over-grown cherub.

He can juggle bowling pins and do unspeakable things

with water-squirting flowers and a rubber chicken.

Still, this man has lost his job.

Truth is: he was too good,

particularly in the art — and yes, it is an art —

of tying balloons into recognizable shapes.

A flurry of lungs. Fingers that twist the knots.

Just the right amount of breath,

the right amount of sadness and tension.

And look what he’s made.

Here’s Lincoln slumped over in an opera chair.

The Titanic diving for the ocean floor

and all the little lights snapping out one by one.

Saint Sebastian full of arrows

and a sadness that spreads

from the man to the crowd

and through the crowd

until the crowd is throwing profanity,

tomatoes, stones

at the one clown who won’t play by the rules.

Did I say this happened at the State Fair?

I lied.

Because when I think of all the fools throughout history

who stared into the heavens and swore

our planet was not the center of

that roiling cosmic soup, or those who were used

as tinder atop some religious pyre,

or drew a set of wings then drew a man between them,

or split atoms, or found cures, or whispered the word

love in corners where such words were not allowed,

when I think of these fools and the crowds that must

have cornered them,

it’s easier to picture the sideshow, the spectacle.

It’s easier to point and let your laughter

fry the air like carnival music.

Did I tell you about the time one of my uncles

gave me a deck of cards? I was a kid,

and to teach me a couple games, he explained

every aspect of the deck. When he got

to the madman in the circus paint,

he said: “This might look like a clown,

and you won’t need it in most games,

but if you lose a card, use this one instead.

It could be anyone; it could be you.”

Then he shuffled the deck.

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