Back in the heyday of circuses, tents were waterproofed, believe it or not, with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline. This substance turned the big top into a deadly inferno at a circus in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1944. In his new novel in verse, Worlds Afire, poet Paul Janeczko tells the story of the tragedy that left 167 people dead and 500 more hurt. This is Janeczko's first novel, and in it, he gives voice to 29 eyewitnesses, including a circus buff, a gorilla attendant, a firefighter and a nurse, all of whom share their experiences in spare, lyrical lines. There are poems about the setting up of the circus and the excitement it engenders in the community. Then, circus-goers and circus workers talk about what they like and what they do. When the fire breaks out, the rush of voices matches the roar of the flames, as the horror of the spectacle becomes evident. State troopers come to the scene, children fail to show up at home, a little girl later known as Little Miss 1565 is never claimed from the makeshift morgue. A fire expert estimates the fire took six, maybe 10, minutes to wreak its havoc and exact its toll when "flames shot up the side of the tent like a dragon roaring to life."
The story is grim, and the author provides no resolution, no reflection nor philosophy to make sense of the tragedy. What hope there is resides in the mix of voices themselves. It's the voice of the father who saves his child then stops to save others, of the nurse who works stoically amidst the suffering, of the camera operator who captures the tragedy on his 8mm movie camera. Janeczko, who is known for his many fine anthologies of poetry, delivers the two sides of life here both the joy and the sorrow. His characters represent life and death, lyrically evoking both in a book that is a perfect match of literary style and subject matter.
Dean Schneider teaches middle school English in Nashville.