by Kenneth Koch
I never mentioned my friends in my poems at the time I wrote The Circus
Although they meant almost more than anything to me
Of this now for some time I’ve felt an attenuation
So I’m mentioning them maybe this will bring them back to me
Not them perhaps but what I felt about them
John Ashbery Jane Freilicher Larry Rivers Frank O’Hara
Their names alone bring tears to my eyes
As seeing Polly did last night
It is beautiful at any time but the paradox is leaving it
In order to feel it when you’ve come back the sun has declined
And the people are merrier or else they’ve gone home altogether
And you are left alone well you put up with that your sureness is like the sun
While you have it but when you don’t its lack’s a black and icy night. I came home
And wrote The Circus that night, Janice. I didn’t come and speak to you
And put my arm around you and ask you if you’d like to take a walk
Or go to the Cirque Medrano though that’s what I wrote poems about
And am writing about that now, and now I’m alone
And this is not as good a poem as The Circus
And I wonder if any good will come of either of them all the same.
I had one of those serendipitous adventures last weekend that was unplanned but pleasantly not unexpected. I headed off to meet my partner who was camping in southern Wisconsin and we wound up hiking several days around Lacrosse and points north. She had lived and worked in Trempealeau county Wisconsin 35 years ago and she took me to revisit some of her favorite outdoor haunts. We went on several breath taking hikes with great views of the forest bluffs, surrounding valleys and the Mississippi river.
Making our way back towards Minneapolis late Sunday afternoon we decided to stretch our legs for a minute before heading the last bit home in the dark. We stopped in Durand, Wisconsin which is on the banks of the Chippewa River. As I walked up the deserted river walk that was behind the storefronts on main street I saw a sign on the back of a bar that advertised canoe rentals. We decided to poke our heads around front to get more information for next summer.
This was a classic small town bar/grill with a group of regulars watching the Packers game on the big screen in the bar. The restaurant area was empty and as we were the only two wearing masks and Wisconsin COVID is sky rocketing we grabbed a high top well away from everyone else. Our information mission with the waitress turned into the munchies when I spied the fried chicken with home made stuffing special on the black board and we settled down to a Spotted Cow (great local beer) and a bite of dinner. The owner stopped over for a socially distanced chat and update us on canoe rentals. As we were wrapping up and getting ready to leave, he stopped by again and said, “Did you see the circus poster, people come from all over the world to see it.” We said, “What?”
He proceeded to take us through the adjoining building into a banquet area complete with its own original wood saloon and ornate tin ceiling. It was entirely empty. He turned on the lights and there under glass, running the entire length of the side of the building opposite the bar from floor to ceiling was a paper lithograph poster of a circus that had come to town in August of 1884, the Great Anglo-American Circus. The star and owner of the circus was Miles Orton, the preeminent acrobatic equestrian of his day. The poster is incredible, both in its miraculous state of preservation, but also the incredible detail and quality of the colors. The bar owner had been the one to discover it while cutting in a hole to form the door we had just walked through when they had acquired the building in 2015 to expand their restaurant business. He proceeded to give us a half hour private lecture on the fascinating history of the circus and the preservation process that in the end, he and his sisters lovingly undertook all on their own. The entire experience was magical. It is a great example of you never know what you are going to discover in any town in America. What makes his find one of a kind, is the poster was made and applied with the intent it would only last a few weeks. It is by pure chance that the neighboring building sprung up and was built so quickly, encasing it between two walls following the circus coming through town, allowed for it to be waiting in the dark to be discovered 130 years later.
You can read more about the history of the discovery of the poster and just how a unique set of circumstances allowed it to be preserved all these years in the article below. If you are ever traveling through central Wisconsin, stop in to the Corral Bar, have a delicious bite to eat, drink a Spotted Cow and go see the circus poster in the Orton Room!
by John Ashbery (1927 – 2017)
we could send you out there
to join the cackle squad,
but hey, that highly accomplished,
thinly regarded equestrian—well there was no way
he was going to join the others’ field trip.
Wouldn’t put his head on the table.
But here’s the thing:
They had owned great dread,
knew of a way to get away from here
through ice and smoke
always clutching her fingers, like it says
Once we were passionate about the police,
yawned in the teeth of pixels,
but a far rumor blanked us out.
We bathed in moonshine.
Now, experts disagree.
Were we unhappy or sublime?
We’ll have to wait until the next time
an angel comes rapping at the door
to rejoice docently.
(I know there’s a way to do this.)