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The Circus Humans' Desertion

Dreamed 1988/2/19 by Chris Wayan


I read Yeats all day, obsessed, until I hit "The Circus Animals' Desertion", a late poem summing up his long painful life: his early romanticism, his revival of Celtic culture, his revolutionary politics, his love for the fierce Maud Gonne, Ireland's failure to unite, his growing old and writing stark incantations in a stone tower... all of it.

When I reached his last bleak verse, I had to put the book down. My heart hit the harsh rock of his vision--and sank like a tanker.



I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and women and the Lord knows what.


What can I but enumerate old themes?
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride?

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
The Countess Kathleen was the name I gave it;
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy,
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough,
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all was said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.


Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

--Yeats, 1939

a broken heart; a sailing ship; a fairy face; a black player's mask; a ladder down into shadows, where waits the crone of bones.

I close the book, chilled, and try to sleep. I've clothed myself in dreams and stories and songs, like Yeats--will this happen to me?

Has it begun?

If you strip away my art and leave me shivering naked in my feelings, who am I? Is any me left at all? Dream: A thousand-foot stone tower with a staring eye looms over San Francisco.


I find myself in an alternate San Francisco that's dominated by a thousand-foot tower of stone, looming over the Marina. At the top of its terrible spiral stair, The Owner sits, spyglass in hand, watching us all: his toys, his show.

Our only privacy is indoors behind shuttered windows, and under the few trees allowed in wealthy areas, where subversion is less likely. The poor and middle class live in whitewashed, bare Mediterranean houses and streets, pleasant enough, with lots of sun... and visibility. They've grown used to a fishbowl life, but will I? Will I ever?

I cross town on a bicycle, climbing the hills, seeking some hint of privacy. In a rich district, an outdoor clothing sale fills a plaza. I wander through the racks, trying things on and suddenly relaxing; for armored in clothes-racks, I'm hidden neck-deep! Almost private, thanks to clutter.

Then a circus, a traveling commune of clowns and magicians, comes over the ridge. They're beautiful and laughing and loving, in their bright, sexy, comical costumes. They string trapezes and highwires from the houses, and fly above the plaza--not always on the wire. For their magic is real.

As they pack up, they pull me from the crowd, I don't know why, and shout "Join us!"
Dream: I join a circus that trains in a marshy wood hidden from the townsfolk.

And I follow. For their magic is real.

They have a refuge from this fishbowl town. Out in the country, down a little bank, there's a tree-lined marsh, where water-channels wind into the woods. Come away, O human child. They lead me there for training. Hard training. For our magic is real.

My tutor has Mohawk hair. He's tall and gaunt, with an eagle nose--looks Eastern or Plains, nothing like the Western tribes I know. He wears deerskin and knows little English. I don't understand his tongue, but slowly my unconscious recognizes it as Cree, from that book of Cree tales I just read: "Crow Ducks and Other Wandering Talk." I recognize the words for "owl" and "story". Just then a couple of trapeze angels stroll by and say "Oh, you mustn't get him babbling--he makes no sense."

I say "He does too! He's talking about moods and stories. According to the Cree, they're living beings." I'm making a point to the Cree man that the others won't get--by saying MOODS and stories, not OWLS and stories, he'll know I understand Cree word-associations, like owl = stutter = mood.

Despite his linguistic isolation, he has a gentle, thoughtful temperament. They treat him better as the days pass. It seems not to be racism but linguism: many animals and mythic creatures are in the troupe, and fluent speech is what wins you acceptance as a full person, not a circus beast. For it's too tedious to deduce meanings through pidgin and gesture... and I'm told the Talking Beasts evolve over time. In this world, where magic is real, Lamarck trumps Darwin! Practice does make perfect. Dream: I join a circus that trains in a marshy wood hidden from the townsfolk.

The carnie camp has only one exit: a railroad-grade up a steep earthen bank, climbing through a huge cement pipe. One day, for an exhibition, we need to push an antique cannon up this grade. We wrestle it onto a cart and drag it into the pipe... Just then, a fire starts in a nearby tent. I grab a parachute that's lying folded and rolled between the rails, and pull it open, and billow it out till it clings to the walls of the pipe, tight as paint. As I hoped, its fire-retardant flameproofs the tunnel! We roll the cannon through safely. The carnies cheer, and praise my presence of mind. That night they formally declare me a full member. Apprentice no more! Dream: I sign on as a circus clown. Under my hoop skirt is a golf cart I steer with my soles.

A talking tiger offers me my first costume, something to wear as we parade from here to our main camp. I try it on: an immense clown-dress, with a hoop skirt hiding a small electric golf-cart. In it, I look like I'm gliding around smoothly, but really I'm straddling the cart and steering with my bare soles. A trapeze-artist leaping across, to be caught by another girl.

A trapeze girl leads me to the end of the parade, and we snake through town, and then the suburbs, where the streets are lined with children cheering... then back toward our marshy camp. I pull up beside her in a field and sit propped against a boulder, watching the whole Circus pass... feeling a calm joy new to me. At last, I belong.

The next month, the Circus is in a stir. Recently, during a magic show, a stage-spell turned out to be realer than expected, and a door opened in the air. A door to the Blessed Isles of the West, unreached by mortals for an age or more! We can learn deep magic there.

And so, a great expedition is assembled. Many of our best talents go off, indeed half the Circus is gone, leaving us to keep up the camp.

The Expedition's gone a long time. Months? Years? Lifetimes? All my friends and mentors sailed--all the best magicians, all the air-dancers, all the proudest, sexiest, wisest Talking Beasts. At first, saddened by loneliness, I don't look past individuals to see the pattern: all the articulate, dexterous humans and animal-people went. Those left lack either speech or hands or both, or are still struggling to master these skills, and can't do much more.
Dream: after all the human carnies sail off into the West, the circus animals must carry on. This goose sold tickets. The geese punched the tickets. Dream: after all the human carnies sail off into the West, the circus animals must carry on. This goat did the books. The goat did the books... or tried. Dream: after all the human carnies sail off into the West, the circus animals must carry on. This goose punched tickets.
As a group, we feel like creatures working hard at bare carnie competence, at personhood itself, with nothing left over, no time or energy for character or fun. "It's a class difference" I think suddenly. The carnival kings are gone. Our magic is... well, not all stage, but wobbly and weak. Dream: the hazel-eyed kangaroo who took over our circus. Kanga, profile, with a pocket full of papers, in front of circus tents. Caption: Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

In fact, we're nearly leaderless. A bossy kangaroo takes charge by default. I can't--despite my speech and hands, I simply don't know enough about the Circus yet. Besides, I'm far too shy.

We divide up tasks. All the Beasts take on human responsibilities. No doubt it's good for us, but our days are dreary, tiring and long. Years long! Time slouches now, for real magic is gone.

At last a herald arrives from the West. "It's wonderful there--everyone's young, healthy, magical, more beautiful than ever. They're like a new race--the Fair Folk!" An ironic title for carnies who always worked a circuit of county fairs. Can they really return to that, after the Blessed Isles?

But the messenger's a dynamic guy--he gets things moving again. Still, every time I see him, my envy of those in the Blessed Isles worsens. I don't have the heart to wait for my fellow Beasts to evolve to where the Circus was before, when I joined, even though I'll be one of the leaders helping to steer and speed that evolution.

Did I mention the Envoy is Donald Duck? Maybe it says something, that once upon a time brilliant wizards opened doors between worlds, shining princesses danced on air, and sphinxes bared secrets of the soul--and now Donald stands out as a pillar of wisdom and strength. True, he's a distinctly ennobled duck, but still... he's Donald. Maybe it's my own bias. I admired him as a clown--his famous tantrums left me breathless from laughter--but I never thought much of Donald as a person. I try to appreciate what's there, in him and in the rest, because the magic and sex and glamor I wanted just aren't here any more.

I miss the Fair Folk!

Then one day, a boat arrives. A group of the Fair Folk, glowing with magic! The horses have wings, or have gone unicorn. The tigers and leopards are great cat-lords and ladies, wrapped in velvet furs. The humans--I don't want to talk about them.

They say "It's so beautiful there--our people's spirits and powers grow so fast! They're far beyond you now."

"I know," I think bitterly. "So thanks a lot, it's been fun, you're on our own now, you can keep the tents and the contracts..."

"So, we're coming back, and you'll all go to the Blessed Isles. It's your turn."

And then other Fair Folk swim up, boatloads floating in, all the power and beauty and love a thousand times deeper than before... and they mean it. We are to go. Today. Now.

We climb in the boats. No need to pack.

Only this morning I felt despair. We'd been abandoned, I was sure.

We set sail for the Blessed Isles.

Dream: our circus comrades return from the Western Isles transformed: unicorns, fairies, goddesses... Donald Duck? Dream sketch by Wayan; click to enlarge


Dream: a high-wire artist returns from the Western Paradise as a bee-winged fairy. Image based on a sketch by Deidre McClintock.
Come away, O human child,
To the water and the wild...
Come away...
But change is no single leap. The voyage to the Blessed Isles takes time, and must be done in parts. Soul-splitting! Saw the woman in half. A painful circus art.
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

Yes, we must. Bleak times, bleak lessons.

But not forever. Small unicorn in profile.

Not forever.

LISTS AND LINKS: circuses - belonging and community - paradise - revenants (the dead returning) - dream beings - animal people - Native Americans - ducks - marsupials - elves and fairies - glamors and auras - loneliness - duty and responsibility - evolution - perseverance - empathy and generosity - house and home - astral plane - abiku (hunger for heaven) - dreaming personified - transcendent dreams - Yeats - turning into Donald as a shameful disability: Spontaneous Duck

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