Fifteen Minutes

(The Hartford Circus Fire, 7/6/1944)
by Kerry Trautman


Even the greatest showpieces on
earth are flammable. Pink tutus strapped around

elephant hides by muscled trainers.
Even their biceps and suspenders.

Even a proboscis
and feathered headdress,

and the five lions perched
up and over a steel arch.

Even the aerialists,
their sequined leotards, the whips

and chairs of tiger-tamers,
the high-wire unicycles, ballet slippers,

the ringmaster’s top hat
and silk tail-coat.

Even the clowns painting
themselves in the dressing tent, craning

grease-painted ears toward a chorus
of chaos, lifting the lower canvas

flap to see stories-high flames and black
peanut-tiger-popcorn smoke.

Especially the 120-ton
big-top tent rain-proofed with gasoline

and paraffin which melts and
showers incinerating droplets to wooden

bleachers and collapsing tree-trunk
posts. Even the parents,

even as they scream themselves back into
smokeclouds of bursting balloons

and candy apples dragging
small, screaming, blackened

bodies to finish smoldering in
summer sun.

167 charred bodies stacked in mud, dressed
in what’s left of sooty Sunday Best.

Zebras and giraffes stomping in the menagerie
tent smelling what’s coming.

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