The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Steven Knepper

Carousel Man


Nobody trusts a carnie.  That's a fact.
Some moms don't even let me lift their kid
Up on a horse for fear I have designs.
When a local church meets at the grounds
I feel the eyes when I get passed the plate.
I have a trailer in the Poconos
And work the ski resorts all winter long,
Make furniture and cabinets on the side
To customize those overpriced chalets.
This job ain’t one I need to make ends meet.

Not that the carnie crew is full of saints.
I'm careful where I put my wallet down.
But bosses try to weed the perverts out
Because they know that spot won’t wash away—
They’d lose their contracts when it hit the papers.

I've seen some awful things at carnivals,
But carnies weren't involved in most of them.
One place was running dog fights after hours.
I couldn't sleep for all the yelps and growls.
One time I saw a woman whip her kid 
With plastic pipe out in the parking lot.
I served an army stint right out of school
But never saw a killing till this job—
Some boy that won a switchblade tossing rings
And got the itch to try it right away.
Meth has made things worse in recent years,
With tweekers turning tricks in port-a-johns
Or raiding rides at night for parts and wire,
Their caved-in mugs as pale as graveyard ghouls.

I'm giving you the wrong impression, though.
The apple core ain’t close to rotten yet.
There's still a magic in the carnival—
The laughter that you hear, the way the light
Looks on the spinning Ferris wheel at night,
How it glistens on the children's eyes
When they go round and round the carousel.
The parents wear this smile that’s bittersweet
Because they want to give their kid a life
Just like a pony ride that never ends.

The carousel's a marvelous machine.
I don't know where the company got this one.
It’s really something else—our finest ride.
I’d sooner quit than work the giant slide
Or pirate ship with all those snotty teens.
It has an inner row that rises up 
And down, an outer row that's fixed for tots—
Bucking broncos, regal quarter horses,
Prancing unicorns with golden horns,
Even saddled ostriches and seals
If you prefer to ride a wilder mount.

Two years ago I made a horse for it.
A new guy didn’t look before he backed
Into the setup zone and mangled one.
It bothered me to see that empty pole.
I spent my free time carving linden wood 
That winter. Didn’t take the extra jobs.
I ordered books off of the Internet,
And even visited a shop in Jersey.
I worked by hand, with chisels and a mallet.
My first one was a costly, clunky dud
But then I got the hang of it and carved
The kind of steed to make a cowboy proud,
An appaloosa with its chestnut spots,
Varnish adding shine to every curve.

I took him in my truck that spring when I
Reported to the buildings where the company
Winterizes rides and does repairs.
Turns out they’d already ordered one.
Mine never left my truck bed till the fall.
I won't deny that stung.  I'd often thought
About the kids who’d race to get him first,
About the lights that’d catch him as he turned.
He sat in my garage for half a year,
Collecting dust and bird shit in a corner.
But this past spring I showed him to the lady
Who manages our little trailer park.
She plants some flowers by the northern gate.
I made a post and mounted him out there
So that he's leaping over hyacinths.
It's not exactly what I had in mind,
But he'll still stir some wonder in the world.


Steven Knepper

Deer Rifle


I still recall the room that smelled of ash—
Linoleum cracked and curled, cast-iron stove,
The narrow stair and table where we sat
And where he ate the daily bowl of mush
He credited with his longevity,
A sonless patriarch past eighty then
In shirt-sleeves and suspenders, stooped and slowed,
His feral eyebrows like an owl’s.

Illumined by the bare bulb’s yellow light,
A rifle lay between us on the table.
I touched its checkered stock and traced its barrel,
A child who would not take this gift into
The woods for six Novembers yet, myself
Unwitting giver of a gift in turn,
Some rite to make a passing seem less final,
Some image of me walking with my father
Under naked oaks, him with us too
Through heirloom’s power of metonymy,
The potent magic of a talisman.

Still, he kept on hunting in his head
The mountainside he could no longer walk,
The thickets, knolls, and blinds in memory,
My role to listen by the wicker chair
To tales of eyes that gleam a savage green
Beyond the flickering light of hunters’ fires,
Of bobcat screams that raise his neck hair in
The darkened woods, of trophies slain and lost,
Of massive twelve-point bucks like mythic stags
That step out from the snow or fog then step
Back out of sight again, ephemeral ghosts,
The bubbling of a rapid mountain spring,
Yet guarded in the fastness of his mind,
The day approaching when I’d take the gun
And bring back game and stories to inspect,
Some lore that I might add to his old store.

                                But then he left
His house and garden by the creek to wear
A flannel nightgown in an old folks’ home,
To scowl at nurses when they changed his diaper.
Disoriented by the strange new room,
Eyes now pooled with milky cataracts,
He rarely told his stories at the end,
But like a hunter kept a quiet watch
Until the shadows lengthened into night,
Until the time had come to pick the rifle
Up and walk beneath the sickle moon.




STEVEN KNEPPER grew up on a small dairy farm in Pennsylvania, and he currently teaches literature and writing at Virginia Military Institute.  His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Road Not Taken, Floyd County Moonshine, Modern Age, The James Dickey Review, Autumn Sky Poetry, and Farming Magazine.



Previous  |  Next