Hartford Circus Fire Remembered, July 6, 1944



Emmet Kelly as his clown persona Weary Willie, by Ralph Emerson.

Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the Hartford Circus Fire, the worst circus tragedy in history. The Paris Review marks the occasion with an article by William Browning about the above photo, what makes it such an iconic image of the event, and the circumstances surrounding the fire.  Since Browning’s excellent writing goes into the details of the fire, I won’t do so here.  Suffice to say that I have written two poems on this tragedy; one included in Strange Girls, and one written after my sideshow/circus collection was published, as this painful event stuck with me for some time.

I don’t often read this poem at poetry readings for two reasons: the first is that I never know if a survivor or someone directly impacted by this tragedy is in the audience, and the second is that it is a difficult poem for me to get through in a reading.  I wept for days while I worked on it, and I still cannot share it at the podium dry-eyed.

“Little Miss 1565,” an unidentified girl, became the icon for the tragic loss of young life.  In this poem I sought to give her back the circus day she should have had, to alter the magic of the circus into a surrealism that would gather her up, would keep her–if only in these stanzas–safe.

I personally know two survivors of this fire, and have been both honored and humbled that they both shared their experience of that day with me.  I’m pleased The Paris Review chose to draw attention to a tragedy that should be remembered well beyond Connecticut.

Lament for Little Miss 1565

Your white dress shows smudges of mud
and sawdust footprints from your trampling,
and your white skin exhibits shoe-shaped bruises
in stunning purplish-black.

As your tender internal organs shut down,
a sweet illusion of calm steals over
your tear-stained face, framed by blonde hair in disarray,
slightly singed, like corn silk

in the height of summer. With your head cradled
on a hospital pillow, unconscious, your dreams
billow up, and you drift back under the big top,
but not the tent of parched paraffin flames

raining onto the panicked violence that separates
mother and child; rather, this circus
opens with spangle-robed elephants that rumble past,
single file, holding tails in trunks,

and pretty ladies on prancing horses with pink feathers
in their hair. You stare wide-eyed
at the acrobats, the fearless woman riding a bicycle
across the high wire, but you prefer

the clowns with big smiles and buckets of confetti,
as your giggles peal out between bites
of cotton candy. You release your balloon into air
when the trainer invites you to waltz

with her fringe-collared brown bear wearing a white
satin party hat, and you dance together
in the spotlight inside the center ring
until you rise above the animal cages,

up over bleachers, safe in the bear’s arms
as you sway past the trapeze and your yellow
balloon, while the bear twirls you higher,
through the tent’s deep blue

canvas roof toward the brilliant July sky;
higher still you whirl, over the midway Ferris wheel
into cub-shaped clouds, heading up to the sparkling
stars sculpting Ursa Minor.

–from Strange Girls, Little Red Tree Publishing, 2010.

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