Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2015  v14n1
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Every Alphabet the Zoo Inside

I read somewhere that our brains are wired for poetry because it is more useful to see a stick and think snake, than see a snake and think stick. Our genes do not reward us for being nonchalant about the world around us. This is true, although sometimes it is useful to see a stick and think stick, and also to see a snake and think snake.

Where I live in San Diego, there is a famous wild animal enclosure embedded in the dry, hot hills of the San Pasqual Valley, not far from the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the Mexican-American War back in 1846. In the wild animal park, a tourist tram scoots through the vast enclosures, so that people can snap photos of zebra, elephants, and herds of tawny deer-family.

I’ve been a passenger aboard that tram. At one point, it braked so that we could observe a bedraggled mini-herd of gazelle-type creatures quivering atop a grassy knoll in their miniature savanna. Anyone could see that these gazelles looked spooked. Their gnarled, hooved powerlegs and shapely heads were caricatures of fear. The zoo guide explained that they could smell lions in the air.

Some fear is pointless. Then again, perhaps gazelles know something that zookeepers do not about the strength of fences.

My poems allow me to inhabit each of these spaces for short periods of time. I can be the tram of gawkers, sunscreened to the gills and dreaming of lunch; the trampled grass beneath the sharp hooves of the fearful; the appetite of a bored lion.

The men who died in the nearby hills 169 years ago might have something to say about whether there is a difference between a lion and the smell of lion in the air. Good fences make good neighbors, unless what you fear in your neighbor is his ability to climb fences. A poem is a fence that opens itself in both directions. Toward you, and away from you. If I have a muse, she is an electric fence. Like a lion, she bites me when I get too close.

Driving into the desert this week, I saw a crow flying over the highway with a snake in its beak. By snake, I mean snake, not stick or something metaphorical. Though the crow and the snake were not my business, I watched that intimate flight, perhaps the snake’s first. And because I am afraid of snakes and not afraid of crows, I worried for the crow. Crows eat snakes, but snakes eat crows.

I cannot say whether the crow or snake were afraid. For myself, I was strapped into the black beak of my car, eating the miles between home and my destination, dreaming of lions, and I could be any number of miles or years away from death.

The way I wanted to tell the gazelles: you will die, but you are wrong about how you will die.

I write because I am dying, as you are. And because there is no way of knowing whether our lions are enclosed, stand with me in full view of the sun on this grassy hill. Let our bodies be near. Let another beautiful day pass over us. Something may be coming for us. We may be coming for something.  end  

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