Caged, toothless, a lion sits in the manner of Kabul
alley cats, front paws slightly curled inward
toward his chest, hind legs folded close to his body,
head erect, staring beyond what moves beyond the bars.
Marjan's mane mangled from a grenade tossed
five years ago that killed his mate.
He'd mauled the victorious fighter who'd entered
his enclosure to celebrate, lion to lion.
He survives revenge and today's war,
gunfire and guided bombs. Near starvation,
he gums the flank of something tossed to him.
Alley cats steal in to steal choice pieces.
From neglect, old age, he dies.
Ten years earlier, Kuwait City evacuated,
desert-hued walls shrapnel-riddled,
hippos, big as burnt-out Mercedes,
wandered the streets. Sharks, more or less lucky,
pulled from algae-festering aquariums,
eaten by the invading army.
A confused giraffe stared into
a flashing traffic light. Cages opened,
toucan and parrots perched on bullets.
At the city limits, steel-latticed stems
of a hundred desert derricks
sabotaged into unfurling black blooms.
by order of the Japanese army,
at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo,
shortly before the flash and ash
of Hiroshima and Nagazaki,
the cages left open, tigers, leopards,
bears, snakes, all poisoned.
Three elephants, John, Tonky, and Wanly,
wouldn't eat the poisoned potatoes.
The syringes' needles too weak
to pierce their skins. Seventeen days later,
John starved to death. Tonky and Wanly,
weak and thin, lifted their bony bodies,
stood on their hind legs, raising
their trunks as high as they could,
performing their bonsai trick,
begging for food, for water.
No one said a word. No one said
their trainer went mad giving
them what they needed.
Everyone prayed for one more day
that tomorrow the bombing would end.
Two weeks later, they died, trunks stretched,
hooked high between the bars of their cage.
If that prayed for time exists,
perhaps my father found it,
mowing the lawn, raking leaves,
finishing the basement with cheap
wood paneling, washing and waxing
a series of cars, a shine maintained
between wars. My mother kept
some of the bowling trophies,
emptied the closets of his clothes,
gave away all the shoes except
his traditional German dance clogs,
the ones with a military spit-shine.
I kept the patches, the chevrons,
insignias, medals, flags,
the photographs. His leather belts,
I could wrap around me twice.
One cut of gray, wrinkled
elephant skin, stamped authentic
as death must be.
Copyright 2005 by Walter Bargen
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, “Zoonotic” by Walter Bargen, won an Honorable Mention in our 2005 War Poetry Contest. When you enter a contest with a specified theme, it's important to find a fresh angle that will make your poem stand out from thousands of others on the same topic. Bargen's memorable images and unusual choice of viewpoint—war as experienced by zoo animals—kept his poem in the running.
Still, “Zoonotic” faced tough competition from the other honorable mentions, finalists and semifinalists because I wasn't completely satisfied with the ending. For many of the poems in that last group of 50-100, that was the deciding question: what does it all add up to? Where poems show an equivalent level of craftsmanship, I lean toward the one with something substantial to say, in which the emotions aroused by the story produce a larger insight. Although the last section lacked the intensity of what had gone before, I felt the poem taught me something new about compassion and cruelty in wartime, which was enough to put Bargen in the winners' circle.
The word “zoonotic” makes us think of the zoos that are the subject of the poem, but it is actually the word for any disease that can be transmitted between animals and people. Several kinds of interspecies transmission are at work in this poem. War is a human epidemic that spreads to the animals we have caged. Even before the war, we “infected” them with human culture, taking them away from their self-sufficient life in the wild and teaching them to depend on us for food and protection. We see this most clearly in the heartbreaking image of the elephants Tonky and Wanly vainly doing circus tricks in hopes of being fed.
And yet, the animals also transmit something more positive back to us. The plight of the trusting elephants keeps alive our capacity for empathy, which we are tempted to jettison as a luxury when violence threatens: “No one said/their trainer went mad giving/them what they needed.” The Japanese trainer's unselfishness toward his animals, in turn, humanizes him in our eyes, making it impossible to see him as merely “the enemy” in World War II.
Viewing war through the eyes of animals highlights how human violence distorts the order of creation. The disoriented giraffes and hippos “big as burnt-out Mercedes”, wandering through a surreal, chaotic landscape, are as unnatural as the “black blooms” of burning oil wells that replace true vegetation. Bargen's wonderful powers of description leave us with indelible images of war's horrors.
In virtually all cultures, animals function as powerful archetypes of human traits. In Marjan the lion, unaccountably surviving the onslaughts of larger conquerors only to die of neglect, we see every once-proud general forgotten or mocked in his old age. Marjan also resembles the beleaguered country of Afghanistan, caught up in the geopolitical struggles of empires while its people starve. In addition, Bargen may have intended an allusion to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir,” a leader of the anti-Taliban resistance who was assassinated (probably by al Qaeda) just before September 11, 2001.
The only thing I would change about “Zoonotic” is the last section, beginning, “If that prayed for time exists,/perhaps my father found it”. I had two problems with how Bargen chose to end the poem. First, I wasn't adequately prepared for the shift from a third-person omniscient voice to a first-person recollection. Neither the speaker nor his father appear in the previous stanzas, which take place in a wholly different setting. Thus, describing how the father and his son made peace with wartime memories felt like the ending to a different story. It was answering a question that hadn't been raised yet.
My second problem was that the perspective of the last stanza was several degrees removed from the action, which made the ending anticlimactic compared to the vivid scenes that preceded it. It's hard to make hindsight analysis feel as substantial as eyewitness reportage, especially when the memories aren't even the speaker's own. (Our first-place winner this year, Jude Nutter, pulls it off, but she's an exception.)
If a concluding stanza is necessary after the deaths of the elephants, I would have preferred to stay with the animals' perspective, because that is what makes this poem unique. Bargen could have added another anecdote about a war currently being waged, describing the threat to the (wild or caged) animals there or their apprehension of imminent danger, to arouse the reader to think “it's happening again—we have to do something”. An even better ending would be a scene of postwar reconstruction, where the peace is symbolized by humans beginning to take care of their zoo animals again. Either way, what's needed is not simply another anecdote of animals suffering, but something that moves the narrative forward, showing us the means to avert catastrophe or the hope of seeing peace restored.
Where could a poem like “Zoonotic” be submitted? These upcoming contests came to mind:
Ruth Stone Prize in Poetry
Postmark Deadline: December 10
$1,000 and publication in the literary review Hunger Mountain; no simultaneous submissions
Poetry Society of America Awards
Postmark Deadline: December 23
Highly prestigious awards program for unpublished poems on various themes; poems like “Zoonotic” are a good fit for the George Bogin Memorial Award, given to a group of poems that “use language in an original way to reflect the encounter of the ordinary and the extraordinary and to take a stand against oppression in any of its forms”
This poem and critique appeared in the November 2005 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter.
Categories: Poetry Critiques