My Idea of the Circus Is My Idea of the Circus Otherwise Known As: My Mother Was a Celebrated Stunt Motorcyclist, Vietnam, 1958 to 1962
Very loud a mad frenzy The wooden
barrel she rode would have roared
(I first wrote “road”)
Left home to join the circus: 15 years old
You enter at the bottom and wind upwards
in spirals the bike climbing the sides
You enter the barrel on a Peugeot
with automatic tied down handles
I mean the kind that you can peg
so you can ride hands-free
arms out like wings on either side
Sometimes she fell
tremendously (50 feet, more?)
This is insane no helmet
or other gear like it
Ripped pedal pusher pants
Maybe the watchers above
(all men in the picture)
pulled their lips sent and leapt
or wanted to to throw themselves
and stop your flying hair
The howling and the howling
Your smiling riding your falling
Hoa Nguyen, “My Idea of the Circus Is My Idea of the Circus Otherwise Known As: My Mother Was a Celebrated Stunt Motorcyclist, Vietnam, 1958 to 1962.” Copyright © 2014 by Hoa Nguyen. Reprinted by permission of the author.
- What is the story in this poem? Who is telling the story?
- How does the poem’s structure mimic the speeding circular movement of a stunt motorcyclist riding up and around the inside of a barrel? (Hint: look for the use of repetition, etc.)
- How is sound used in the poem?
- The title suggests that the speaker is describing events from the past, and yet there are moments where the language shifts to present tense (“You enter”, “This is insane”) — how does this change the mood of the poem? What does it say about the speaker’s relationship to the past?
- If you were going to recite this poem, what tone would you use? Where would you speed up or slow down?
- Write a poem in which you imagine an event from the past that you did not witness, maybe a story that one of your parents has told you that you want to try to understand better. Do you have a favourite photo of your mother taken when she was very young? You can also use a photo of your father or any important older person in your life. Imagine the world around the photograph and write the story as if you are there.
Wall of Death Motorcycle Circus Stunt Show:
In an interview, Hoa Nguyen describes her mother’s life (as it relates to this poem): “She left home at 15 and joined a circus and became a motorcycle stunt-woman in Vietnam in the early 1960s. She did these amazing things contrary to what her position as a poor woman, born in 1942 in the Mekong Delta, should have been.” Read the full interview here: