The Acrobats by Charles Higham

Five shabby dancers in the circus dust,
Five midgets balancing their grief. I must
Tell of their hour upon the glittering stage:
Laughing like gutted dolls, crying like owls
Stiff in the public’s gaze, quelling their rage
Under the sheeted arms that stretch like sails.

Once they were young, and capered through the tents,
Drunken and flushed with their first innocence.
It lasted little. Beauty was not long.
Those pretty things their limbs grew sharp and frail.
Once born they had to know another wrong.
Lines crawl across the cheeks. Time thrusts the nail.

Now in their teetering pyramid of arms,
And legs the cracks threaten their earthly charms.
Applause whips like a snake about their heads,
Where once it broke like tempests. When it goes
All they can do is reach across a bed
And hold each other in a sad embrace.

For centuries the Wessels knew the air.
Lights searching, steel wires taut, they danced up there,
For generations whirled above the ground,
Swinging and dancing in an endless waltz,
Their stark geometry matched to each sound
Of drums and fifes and timpanies and flutes.

Then came an hour when the whole structure went.
That perfect discipline shrivelled and bent.
They fell into a net. The mob did not
Forgive the act. Soon they were grounded. Then
A finis was inscribed beneath the plot.
Now they are not quite known as gentlemen.

It doesn’t matter, nothing does. They go
Happily dancing in the sawdust glow.
Lamely climb up on shoulders, sing and clap,
And wave thin hands across the shadow-line.
In every ring they toil and toil the trap
Like insects struggling round a vat of wine.

From: Higham, Charles, “The Acrobats” in The Bulletin, August 22, 1964, p. 47.

Date: 1964

By: Charles Higham (1931-2012

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