Michael Harris’ latest book of poems, his first complete collection of new material in over two decades, explores the veritable circus of our lives. Veering from topics as daunting as universal love in “Speech,” or as seemingly trite as a lustful dog in “Chihuahua,” it is the seamlessness with which Harris vacillates between the profound and the comic that makes this book uniquely effective and poignant.
Harris establishes a satirical rhetoric in a voice reminiscent of Mark Twain’s, his humour disarming the reader and allowing hard-won truths to resonate all the more. His advice on how to navigate the circus of life and each tightrope walk it throws is offered with an ironic tone. The more pointed counsel underlying it all is to diffuse life’s hardship and heartache, as Harris does, with a generous dose of humour. To blend or balance the dark with the light is the aim of many an artist and would seem to be one of Harris’s objectives here.
But Harris’s ironic gaze is not restricted to the fantastic performances under the big top. The quotidian behind-the-scenes moments are of no less worth or interest, as evident in the stanzas of “Custodian”:
The tools of my trade
are no longer pen and podium,
but mop and bucket, shovel and broom – and a pair
of the finest rubber boots this side of England…
All knowledge is useful, though
you can never tell when …
Bur few want the job as janitor
O once I sang in my chains like the sea.
Now, thank God.
The first poems of the collection focus on the circus itself in its more obvious form. Harris writes of the dictatorial ringmaster, the enchanting tightrope walker, and the bearded lady, and invites us to see what we might learn from their stories. The poems then segue into the more mundane circus of life and focus on the major players there: marriage, love, sex, and nature.
While the words of many poets provoke us to delve into our memories or ruminate on our heartaches, Harris instead challenges us to get “unstuck, ” to renew ourselves. Infusing each poem with humor, with their speakers often laughing at their own tragi-comic predicaments, Harris asks us to begin again. Or, as the final poem in the book, “Examination” puts it:
the examination will be an open book.
You may start now.
Similarly, other poems evoke a kind of stoicism, an unwillingness to ever lose sight of the humour and colour to be found in the show, even when suffering and failure cannot be avoided. In “Hang in There”, as elsewhere in the book, it’s all about grace under pressure:
Who lived through the crash
of the Krazy Kops car? I did,
and I’m fine, says Benji the Clown:
there’s an art to falling down.
– Nicole Heelan