Highwire poetry

Wildcat Dreams in the Death Light
Reagan M. Sova, First to Knock, 2022, 265 pages, US$17
LIAM GUILAR takes a ringside seat for a dazzling extravaganza

‘Wildcat Dreams in the Death Light is an incantatory work of narrative poetry. Infused with hobo melancholy, Jewish lore, bloodshed and hilarity…’.

It’s rare for a blurb to be so accurate. For the price of the book, Reagan M. Sova will perform as ring master, troubadour, high wire artist and magician to entertain and dazzle the awestruck crowd.

Set in the first decades of the twentieth century, the story is told by Mort Sloman, who leaves home at thirteen. He falls in with a circus, and in love with a Gypsy trapeze artist, discovers friendship across the barriers of race and difference, witnesses institutionalised racism, violent death and corruption, joins the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World, IWW) and unionizes his circus, travels through Europe during the First World War to Egypt, returns to America to help the union cause and finally performs the Festival of Light for his dead relatives.

A lot happens.

At the beginning, the narrator sets out on a quest, mounted on a mule rather than a white charger:

i/consecrated unto myself the sacred mission

the ceremony of light to honor Frank and Aunt J

i had the song in hand but i

could not do it without the right guitar

nor the Locksmith keys

not even the rabbis have them

While this quest gives the story a beginning and end, the ‘sacred mission’ fades into the background, replaced first by Sloman’s devoted pursuit of the gypsy acrobat, then by his experiences with the travelling circus, and his involvement in the IWW. Although set in a world anchored in the familiar by historical names – Ringling Brothers, Big Bill Hayward, Eugene V. Debs – and recognisable conditions and historical events, the story moves in a liminal space that shifts Sloman’s journey into the realm of legend.

The circus, which Sloman calls ‘The Kingdom’, is a ready-made symbol of America, with its outcast others, unusual characters labelled as freaks, and self-confident, exploitative hucksters and frauds. His is an American Dream where the poor boy escapes the bullies, finds love and wealth, and good guys find friendship and love, and win despite the odds stacked against them.

The poem exploits its own intertextuality in a cheerfully unembarrassed way. There are echoes of Whitman and the Ginsberg of Howl. But the influences are taken and adapted. A rambling man bound for glory with guitar on his back, writing songs and supporting the union, evokes Woody Guthrie, but the verbal inventiveness of Sloman’s songs is a world away from Woody’s. Like Sloman’s parade, which begins with himself and his friend and grows throughout the story, Wildcat Dreams in the Death Light is robust and generous enough to accommodate whatever resonance the individual reader brings.

The dominant stylistic presence, however, is Frank Stanford and The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. Of all Sova’s many magic tricks, the most impressive is the way he has managed to take Stanford’s instantly recognisable style, make it his own and adapt it to his own purposes.

By shortening Stanford’s line, leaving it unpunctuated and rarely end stopped, Sova has given the poem a rhythm which carries the reader through Sloman’s adventures. Stanford’s distinctive incantatory eruptions are present, but kept under control so they never take over the story the way they do in The Battlefield. They are a major factor in producing the slightly hallucinatory effect that keeps shifting the story from its factual, historical setting into the dream realm.  

When Alf, the circus master, asks the thirteen years-old Sloman what he could have seen ‘with so few years under your cap’, he replies:

i have seen the elderly monk gored by the falling icicle

i have seen the family of elk sleeping next to me in the moonlight

i have seen bob’s jar of brandy

i have seen the vial of goof dust I used to trick the trickster

i have seen the blood trickling

from my grandfather’s ear when he died roller-skating

i have seen good luck without grace invite darkness

i have seen the Gypsy’s vision of my death by the mountain

This early list is typical of the many that follow. They can include everything from the factual to the surreal, as Alf’s reply does. Sometimes it is not obvious how the items coalesce into coherence. Their exuberance often seems an enjoyable end in itself.

As well as contributing to the tone of the story, they serve another function. A long narrative poem needs variety in pace. A relentlessly onward rush becomes as boring as a story that goes nowhere. Part of Sova’s balancing act is to know when to allow the voice to narrate action without interruption, and know when to pause the narration and use the incantatory to add variety.

In the circus, the emperor’s armless great granddaughter plays the violin with her toes. As an image it’s simultaneously pitiful and ridiculous. Like the circus performers, the story risks absurdity. In the wrong hands, much of it would be silly. But the final magic trick, and perhaps the most subtle, is to make Sloman’s voice and story believable on its own terms and hold a reader’s attention for 250 pages. Stylistically assured, inventive, entertaining, Wildcat Dreams in the Death Light is that rare thing, a well-written narrative poem with a distinctive style creating an unforgettable story world.