Catherine Pierce: In Praise of Carnival-Ride Seats

God, I love a carnival. I love a fair. I love a boardwalk amusement park. Love the funnel cake smell, the constant pulse of Whack-a-Mole, the spinning of the teacups, the screams that loft above our heads and out to the beach where they settle on the sand like gulls. And I love—love with a depth and mystery that surprises me—the glittery vinyl seats of carnival rides. You know the seats I mean. Deep green or blue or red swathed with sparkles, as if an excellent topcoat or maybe a galaxy has settled onto them. Just soft enough to give a bit when you sit, when you pull down the safety bar, when you dig in your nails as your bullet-heavy Scrambler car swings precariously close to another one. When I see those seats, it’s the early 1970s and I’m not born yet so I can soft-focus whatever I want. Or it’s late spring in the early nineties and I’m awkward at a local fair with other awkward eighth graders and we’re running to the funhouse and we’re meeting our parents in an hour and we’re trying out swearing because it tastes sweet on our tongues, grainy then gone like cotton candy. Or it’s two Augusts ago, the last time I took my own kids to a summer place packed with people’s laughter and screams and potential viral loads, and my younger son is with his cousins riding the platform-mounted motorcycles I used to ride as a child, and my older son is bravely waiting in line by himself to board the Paratrooper, which will swing him, again and again, high above the rooftops so that he can see the ocean. I am awed. I am waving. 

Always when I see the seats it’s midway bells and the carousel’s calliope. It’s somewhere I used to be and it’s somewhere that’s never existed and it’s somewhere I would be right now if I could. It’s Polaroid nostalgia, all context stripped away. But, too, it’s sheen and sparkle. It’s a star system that leaves me hungry. I feel my love for it inside my body, somewhere between my throat and my heart. Does that sound intense? It is. Look: always I am spinning. But sometimes gulls. Sometimes heat. Sometimes I am one of many people screaming all glad and glittering. Sometimes I buy a ticket, and sit down, and I am briefly in the starry space of joy’s urgency, not pulling the levers of my own spinning now—just riding it.


Catherine Pierce

Catherine Pierce is the author of four books of poems: Danger Days (2020), The Tornado Is the World (2016), The Girls of Peculiar (2012), and Famous Last Words (2008), all from Saturnalia Books. Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, the New York Times, American Poetry Review, The Nation, the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series, and elsewhere. An NEA Fellow and two-time Pushcart Prize winner, she is Professor of English at Mississippi State University, where she co-directs the creative writing program.

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