Almanac Poetry: When Johnstone’s Circus Came to Town


When Johnstone’s Circus Came to Town



At an unfashionable seaside resort,
no more than a country town
that happened to be near salt water,
Johnstone’s Circus arrived
for its annual summer season,
though most of its well-known family
of spangled, toothy artistes
had long ago died,
replaced by a motley ensemble.
“The Big Top” wasn’t big;
more like “The Medium Top”.
Small tears and gaps in the canvas walls
meant kids and shameless adults
who hadn’t bought a ticket
peeped in at the show
or crawled between flaps
to squeeze into the audience.
The tent poles leant on an angle.


. . .


The ticket box opened. Holidaymakers
and locals piled in.
I wondered — would the banked wooden seating
hold under their weight?
Speakers crackled a fanfare
from the age of Edison
and the Grand Entry Parade began.
An old tiger I had seen,
sullen in a trailer-cage,
came in first,
led by the toupeed ringmaster
in a shiny red suit.
With a long wooden pole,
he tapped the tiger on the rump
to keep it from the crowd
— as if it could be bothered.
Then followed a skinny teenage boy,
pimply, leotarded,
falling off his unicycle
to the tufts of the football ground.
A bent, arthritic clown
(the only original Johnstone),
who should have been in an easy chair
on a verandah somewhere
entered next.
He fumbled fake flowers from his sleeve,
presented a puzzled child
with balloons shaped into a sausage dog
and gibbered jokes at the rest of us.
I couldn’t understand a word.
A middle-aged lady and man
in skin-tight lurex pranced into view
— the tightrope act.
But no danger of them being hurt;
the rope was thick wound steel,
four feet from the ground.
Other performers, animals paraded
— a pair of Shetland ponies,
a man wielding enormous knives,
a camel, a boy
riding a baby elephant.
The show began …
and ended.
The main thing I remember
was a bloke with a stockwhip
who selected a “volunteer”,
a sassy blonde teenage girl,
and cracked a cigarette from her mouth.
And the man with the knives wasn’t bad,
though he threw his shiny missiles
with flagrant, focussed violence
— his shapely blonde assistant
looked pale and terrified.


. . .


We filed from the tent,
chattering, underwhelmed.
Even as a twelve-year-old boy,
I thought Johnstone’s Circus crappy.
But now, three decades later,
its strong whiff of manure
smells richly aromatic.



Acknowledgements: first appeared in Griffith Review (2014), then in my third book-length collection, Orpheus in the Undershirt (Ginninderra Press, 2018).



“Circus performer leaping through a ring of fire”, (n.d.) … definitely not one of the acts described in the above poem! (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)




Kevin Densley is a graduate of both Deakin University and The University of Melbourne. He has taught writing and literature in numerous Victorian universities and TAFES. He is a poet and writer-in-general. His fifth book-length poetry collection, Please Feed the Macaws ... I'm Feeling Too Indolent, was published in late 2023 by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Other writing includes screenplays for educational films.


  1. DBalassone says

    A motley ensemble indeed. This is the circus version of the D-Generation’s ‘Pissweak World’.
    I reckon most of us have been to a circus such as this at least once – usually on a coastal holiday somewhere. You took me right back there.

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, DB. The D Gen comparison is spot on!

  3. Very good, Kevin.
    This certainly brought back childhood memories, that’s for sure.

  4. Kevin Densley says

    Cheers, Smokie. Going to the small cinema in the same coastal town was equally memorable – I recall the usher walking into the auditorium in the darkness with his torch on, and being roared at and almost buried in popcorn and lollies thrown at him by rowdy kids!

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