The Side Project


Forty years of Jumbo doing a one-handed handstand while some geek

simultaneously bites the head off a Wyandotte cock

and the band plays a Hungarian Dance by Brahms

doesn’t mean we’re all on the same page. No Human Skeleton or

    Bearded Lady will primp

less for a small show than a great. A unicorn may graze

the dunes in all their vagaries

and never quite grasp the point

its horn is secured by Bondo.

Though a Norwegian bareback artiste may extend her liking for mere glogg

to mulled wines in general, a curl of the upper lip is a sign of colic

fairly specific to horses. Our impulse to give anything a try

takes in both sudatory

and Psalter, don’t you know? I know from your well documented

    propensity to moan

that your page would be very far from mine

even in the first of those Syllabyi

Errorum Pope Pius IX, poor slob,

one-handedly set down in 1864, the very year Forepaugh first put a

    unicorn in clover

and Sherman’s march to the sea meant the Civil War was pretty much over.


Forty years since we set up winter quarters in Florida and the hay-bale

first tumbled into the economy of scale,

what with the cost

per unit going down as surely as an elephant will be gussied

up for the “come in.” Arachne swallowing a sword all the way to the hilt

as the crowd inches into the tent. The frost now having taken such a hold

the citrus crop is under threat. Each orange and lemon moving

    in its own sphere.

As for the ignominies suffered by Lucifer,

a four-horned goat

who found himself frozen out by the big cat

contingent from their big car, they stab me in the heart.

Who hasn’t woken up screaming in a four-poster elephant herd?

When we fell in love, the consequences for the Human Skeleton

and the Bearded Lady who operates a printers’ guillotine

were simply dire.

Now Arachne is wearing what looks like ecclesiastical attire.

She hauls herself up through the rigging while the big cats adjourn

to their big caravan to ponder the laws of exponential decay

    and exponential return.


Forty years ago we realized that our impulse to be open

to pretty much anything may not run to the Feejee Mermaid (half-guppy,


any more than a dead saint who may still sweat

the Precious Blood so beloved of Pius IX, poor sod.

I imagine Barnum taking umbrage

at the suggestion he’d staged Sherman’s march

as a diversionary tactic. The unicorn Forepaugh turned out has

    the clover-slobbers.

The umbrella-mouth gulper

is an eel that can take in damn nearly an entire clover-field

but, like yourself, probably doesn’t perform fellatio

and probably isn’t impressed by an unbitten

Wyandotte’s felt head with its eye still bright as a button

the geek holds up to the incoming crowd. That same Hungarian Dance music

by Brahms. It’s pretty clear Sherman was heading for Moscow

the way he eased his way with pig-grease

even before the carpet-baggers

would reveal themselves most by what they most revile.

At least everyone in a circus crowd accepts he’s no more than part of the

    rank and file.


Forty years from the first time we heard the strains of that Hungarian

Dance by Brahms and did our best not to picture Jumbo hit by an

    unscheduled freight train

in a marshalling yard in Ontario, Arachne was making straight the path

over a mud-bath

while Sherman gathered his unruly

troops with a drum-roll

usually associated with a firing squad. You and I had hardly gone

    beyond our first peck

at a Coney Island frankfurter stand when I spotted the Norwegian bareback

artiste with one foot on the unicorn-sire

and one on Barnum, as we’d come to know the chief impresario.

While the spotlight would ballyhoo

in a figure-8 over an elephant folio

poster announcing General Tom Thumb and Jenny Lind,

    the Swedish nightingale,

the Bearded Lady never lost her cool.

Arachne’s insistence that an aerialist is not an acrobat

but a fallen angel serves only to perpetuate

your idea that manna from heaven

may be found to an unprecedented degree in Gray’s Papaya at

    Eighth Avenue and West 37.


Forty years to the day when a trawl through Jumbo’s stomach would

    have brought up keys,

nuts, screws, washers, bolts, brass tacks, geegaws,

a bag of coins with which Judas Iscariot

had been bought off for his part in the Papal masquerade

by that poor sod Barnum, or Dan Rice,

complete with performing pig. You and I know what it is to have a

    protective layer of ice

to stave off that greater freeze, know that it’s not an out-and-out hoax

when the Bearded Lady enters the blade-box

to be sawn in half.  That may not be a spurt

of blood as such but we know this is no less a blood-sport

than when Arachne ran into a little impediment as the crowd

    inched into the tent.

Our impulse to apply yellow Centaur liniment

to Jumbo or his cousin, Toung

Taloung, was ill-founded, a wrinkling of the nose coupled with

    a looseness of the dung

being a sign of croup in the mahout. It was strictly of her own accord

the Bearded Lady was cut into quarto

and bound in stillborn calf-hide

like your run-of-the-mill Feegee Mermaid or Pickled Punk malformed

    in his formaldehyde.


Forty years of Barnum trying to establish the cost per unit of promoting

    Commodore Nutt

as the new Tom Thumb, of Arachne’s working without a safety net

at any moment likely to foreground the rot

in erotica. What must have made Arachne finally see red

was the realization that, at the 1846 Papal Conclave,

Pius IX had overseen the Bearded Lady being sawn in half

by the moderate and conservative factions. For it would surely not be lost

on Pius IX that an aerialist

is no mere acrobat, given his powers

of infallibility, don’t you know? Forty years of Jumbo showing his prowess

in the one-handed handstand

while some geek simultaneously decapitates a rooster. The tune

    that will come to haunt

me as Lucifer leads the “come in” and the geek spits the head into

    the front stalls

will rise above the big cat calls.

It’s that same old Hungarian Dance tune

played on a cornet from a unicorn that once grazed the dunes

in all their vagaries. We took it as a signal for Frog Boy and

    the Human Chimera to wreak

vengeance on Barnum for being such an out-and-out control-freak.


Forty years to the day since Sherman set off from Atlanta for Savannah

    with his big caravan

of big cats, top dogs, a performing pig named Lord Byron and, no less proven

in battle, the Missing Link, Frog Boy,

the Human Chimera and the Human Alligator. Barnum still

    insisting this isn’t a decoy

to distract us from some main event. Your insisting, meanwhile,

    this was chalk

from Arachne’s hands on my pants. Some days it looked as if

    Lucifer might stalk

a raggedy-ass lion

to pull down the news from behind the headline.

It was 1867 when the frankfurter trend

took off on Coney Island and it must indeed have marked the end

of an era to a goat with four horns,

never mind the first unicorn

Forepaugh had turned out under the unicorn nomenclature.

The Missing Link and the Human Alligator

now found themselves going off behind the generator truck

to work up their new trick

while I found myself checking for symptoms of croup

in both the Norwegian bareback artiste and Arachne, then the new girl

    in the trapeze-troupe.


Forty years of Forepaugh or Dan Rice or Barnum IX heaping

    ignominy upon ignominy

really doesn’t mean

we’re all of a like mind as to how to deal with the rash

of pickpockets at a matinee, never mind the crash

in the marshalling yard in Ontario that thrust my little side project

    front and center.

Jumbo would no more truly benefit from Centaur

Liniment than, in the Civil War, Barnum truly brought cheer

to the country with a Pickled Punk in a Mason jar.

It was in Ontario the Norwegian bareback artiste’s triumphing

    over Arachne

as she might over an unbroken

Appaloosa came to a sudden halt. Now the Missing Link prevailed


Dictatus Papae

in the way Gray’s Papaya

has prevailed over Papaya King.

I know your propensity for believing Barnum was no more subsumed

    by Ringling

than Lee was routed by Sherman’s Savannah campaign

but you’ve got to admit the “come in”

is an effective way of consigning a crowd to the peripheries.

It was in Ontario you and I would first find a way of staving off

    that even greater freeze.


Forty years after I stumbled upon the Norwegian bareback artiste, herself

    without a stitch,

helping Barnum to make a pitch

for the upcoming gigs at Gethsemane and Golgotha, I found

    Arachne forcing mere

glogg down the Good Thief’s throat. Forepaugh, meanwhile, in an

    unpublished memoir,

would admit to having hired the gang of pickpockets

that fleeced the matinee crowd. I imagine you as a mahout lying

    under a spigot

in Coney Island and wrinkling your nose

as you pull down the news

behind the headline that you’ve finally had your first peck of a frankfurter.

Forty years since we set up winter quarters

in Florida and the Bearded Lady was cut into duodecimo,

not even the elephant folio could subsume

Tom Thumb and Jenny Lind the way Sherman took in Atlanta.

What you found on my pants on Coney Island

wasn’t chalk but rosin, don’t you know? I suppose that, prior to the

    St. Louis hippodrome,

the hope had been that Arachne’s spiking her red wine with equal parts rum

and potato akvavit

might allow her to bounce off the Appaloosa’s rosin-dappled safety-net and land on her feet.


Forty years since Sherman was attacked by Confederate guerillas from the rear

and you and I first settled into our starring roles in our own little raree

show cum snake-oil

circus it’s pretty clear we’ve found a way to foil

most guerilla attacks by making a pre-emptive strike on the “citrus crop.”

I’m no more interested in an Arachne showing me the ropes

than in a Norwegian bareback artiste and her umbrella-mouth gulper eel.

I imagine a Norwegian bareback artiste, as recently as 1864,

    setting the Papal seal

on a Mason jar in which is suspended the first (and last) Syllabus Errorum.

Who hasn’t woken up screaming in a forest of four-poster pachyderms

where thin-skinned mahouts from their howdahs

incite us to winter in Florida?

The joint funeral of the Norwegian bareback artiste trampled

    by her Appaloosa

and Arachne, who fell to her death in a hippodrome in St. Louis,

reminds us no Bearded Lady nor Human Skeleton will prink

less than the Human Alligator or Missing Link

for if Jumbo succumbing to a rogue train in a marshalling yard truly marks

    the end of an era

it also truly allows us to remake ourselves as Frog Boy and

    the Human Chimera.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paul Muldoon is a Princeton professor and chair of Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts, a writer of criticism, libretti, plays, and children’s books, translator from the Gaelic, leader of a rock band called Rackett, and poetry editor of The New Yorker. His latest book is Maggot.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up