May 2008

Jennifer Garfield


It's Never Too Late to Join the Circus: On Marie Carter's The Trapeze Diaries

Growing up near Chicago, my grandparents once took my brother and I downtown to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's circus. At the time, I was more excited by the giant tub of popcorn and foot-long licorice strings than the actual performance. In retrospect, though, we all rewrite our histories, and I prefer to recall a prescribed sense of glittery enchantment as the tight-rope walkers and fire eaters made the impossible possible, offering a glimpse into an alternate reality to my mundane suburban childhood.

Now, a grown-up in the “real world” without much magic to speak of, I'll often walk by Hodgkin's Park in Somerville, Massachusetts on my way home from work on summer evenings to watch the kids at the Open Air Circus Camp glide around on their miniature unicycles. Circus performers have always held a place on the “fringe,” and there's something untouchable about these kids, as though juggling six apples allows them to claim a much sought-after “outsider” status. I feel separate from their world, regretful that I spent my only opportunity to learn the secrets of the kopfstehen wrapping licorice around my brother's head. The irony of being the outsider's outsider isn't lost on me. I feel like screaming, “Hey, I'm an outsider too! Let me in your club!” But I'm afraid they won't believe me, and I don't know if I could take that kind of double rejection.

Looking to reclaim the magic as my own, I picked up The Trapeze Diaries, Marie Carter's latest almost-fiction endeavor from Hanging Loose Press, and found a brilliant reminder that it's never too late to join the circus. A collection of juxtaposed micro-moments from Carter's childhood in working-class Edinburgh to her path of self discovery as a young woman in New York, this slim, no-frills narrative tells how Carter's grown-up love affair with the trapeze taught her the true tricks of bravery and courage in the face of loss and fear.

As Carter chronicles her life before and after her father's sudden death, her serene, utilitarian prose is nonetheless poetic in its scope, weaving a tapestry of disclosures on the illusions of fear and identities, both on and off the trapeze. Like my suspicion of the circus kids at Hodgkin's Park, she confesses to having always been an oddity and finds this allows her a sense of belonging among the circus people and an opportunity to shed the persona of fear she's held onto since childhood.

The Trapeze Diaries is an outsider book in terms of structure and genre,” Carter said in a recent e-mail correspondence. “It's not quite fiction, not quite memoir and not quite nonfiction. It belongs and yet doesn't belong to those categories. This is also the essence of the book: being liberated from the confines of typecasting so that you are free to be the most positive expression of yourself.”

Throughout the book, Carter investigates the many labels cast upon her that have never been a perfect fit in terms of gender, sexuality, class and nationality. The circus, however, is her chance to not only slip in and around the ropes and bars, but to also “slip in and out of the various identities that society imposes upon people.”

Studying the trapeze has also underscored the surprising union of life and death, and Carter learns that fear of pain is much worse than pain itself. This idea of illusion plays out in different, connected forms throughout the book: The audience gasps as the Aerialist lifts a svelte man in the performance, inverting the assumption of gender. Carter's ailing mother asks her who the dominant one is in her new lesbian relationship, as though it is as impossible to see love take another shape as it would be to twist her own body into the contortionists' unimaginable poses of grace.

In her own moments of graceful eloquence, Carter draws from a small arsenal of psychologically astute friends to maximize opportunities for personal enlightenment. When she struggles to achieve One-Knee Hang at a trapeze lesson, the Aerialist jokes she has a “letting go” problem. While Carter says the driving theme behind the book is a yearning to be like the elusive, perfect Aerialist, the characters who have moved from being “insiders” to “outsiders” were also important teachers.

“[My mother] was a conventional housewife who believed she had the 'perfect family’,” Carter said. “But then she loses her husband and becomes an outsider. The irony is that the ‘outsider’ status makes you more compassionate and able to connect to other people's pain.”

At times, it may feel like Carter is doing the work for us, and I occasionally felt I was back with my hands gripping the chain-link fence at Hodgkin's Park, on the sidelines, not participating in the discovery. Yet as Carter realizes her own physical and emotional resilience, there are blazes of true insight that make it up to us, like when she writes, “People are always asking me whether I'm scared of what would happen if I fell from a trapeze. I am more scared of what would happen if I gave up.”

While Carter's straightforward confessions are raw and vulnerable, she maintains a keen sense of skepticism throughout that saves this touching book from being shelved under “heartwarming inspiration.” Her powerful voice ultimately breaks down the illusions of genre and boundaries that pave the path from grief to recovery.

At one point, marveling at their newfound strength and ability to be in the “now” since discovering the trapeze, Carter and her fellow students discuss how they resent their parents for not teaching them circus tricks at a younger age. But Carter warns not to become “fixed” on who you once were.

“When you label yourself something or try to belong to any kind of community, you become fixated on an idea of your past or future self rather than just letting yourself be,” Cater says. “I always had this idea in my head that I was a physical dunce, but when I started becoming strong and flexible from trapeze, I had to start looking at where else in my life I was stuck in one mode of being.”

I think back to the Hodgkin's Park circus kids and my twangs of jealousy and missed opportunity. Maybe it's not too late to learn new tricks after all.

Author Bio: Jen Garfield is a poet and freelance writer living in Somerville, MA. She is the poetry editor for the online literary journal Prick of the Spindle ( Her chapbook Excuses for Happiness if forthcoming from Pudding House Publications.