They Used to Dance on Saturday Nights by Gillian Devereux (A Review)

By Leesa Cross-Smith


Aforemetioned Productions
34 pgs. | $8 (Print) | $5 (PDF)

The poems in They Used to Dance on Saturday Nights took me by the hand, led me spinning into a glittery, gritty fantastic world of carnivals and girls and knife-throwers. Sadness and colored lights. I went gladly. I love it when a writer can take something extraordinary and special and put it in simple words. I also love it when a writer can take something simple and make it extraordinary and special. Gillian Devereux does both.
In “The Armless Girl Speaks” she writes: I have taught myself how to use the necessary tools: the knife & fork, the comb & brush, the hook & eye, the catch & release. An extraordinary body can still live an ordinary life. I do, in my way. I exist as exhibition– just another nameless spectacle, but even armless, I’m a girl. And in “The Saddest Girl in the World” she writes: Her eyes hold nothing. The rusted cage holds nothing, other than the saddest girl in the world and a little white suitcase that holds all she owns. Her parents told her she will never be pretty. She’s the saddest thing.
One of my favorites in this collection was “Mermaids and Other Marvels of the Sea.” A lovely example of how Devereux’s writing weaves a pretty visual of the magical. She writes: It’s a simple ensemble: some tinsel and silk, seashells crafted from tin and diamond past. Imagine the azure clarity of the purest ocean water. Now muddy that water with sweat and dust. Those words together are such a joy to feel in your mouth, to read aloud. Do it. You’ll see.
“The Way He Throws The Knife” is sexy. Surprising. Alluring. Still, she never flinches when the blade draws blood; she never cries or closes her eyes, not even when he kisses her slowly, not even when he breaks her heart. Like any addiction, he consumes all thought, clouds memory, camouflages lust. It isn’t love that binds them. Love doesn’t lure her back. It’s just the way he throws the knife. In “Requiem For a Sideshow Attraction” she writes of Siamese twins: Like normal girls, they fear spiders, thunderstorms, the dark. Awake, they walked three-legged, beautiful girls with milky skin and thick black hair that I braid each morning.
The title of the collection comes from a poem called “Esteban The Dancing Bear:” the joy reflected in the crowd of children and grandfathers (who used to dance on Saturday nights, their hair slick with grease, their breath sweetened by whiskey.) In this collection, the girls are ethereal. They have skin comparable to moonlight and milk and Devereux doesn’t forget to remember the stars and sky. She uses a lot of ampersands and the poetry is both realistic and delicate.
From the cover of this chapbook which features a pair of bare legs and ankle strap heels, to the last poem, “Lester Dowdy’s Carnival,” about the thrill of a ferris wheel ride, Devereux takes the reader on a ride of her own. A ride that goes from the tip-top of a pausing ferris wheel to get a view from above, to the dirty depths of the carny underbelly.
When I was in middle school, I used to go to the amusement park every spring/summer Friday night. The local radio station threw a little dance party and played music and I’d walk around with a big group of girls. We’d eat carnival food and talk to boys and not talk to boys. And we’d always ride the ferris wheel when it was dark-dark. I both loved and hated when it stopped at the top for what felt like forever. I always got the same mix of feelings; the stomach-swirl of being both scared and happy. The space between. I look for that in poems, stories. That space betweenishness. I found it here. When I finished this collection I could practically taste the pale pink sugar of the carnival cotton candy machine. I wanted to lick my sticky-sweet fingers clean.

Leesa Cross-Smith is a homemaker, a writer, an editor. She and her husband edit a literary magazine called WhiskeyPaper. Find more at

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