Living in the Zoo
the first year after the war,
one third of the city destroyed,
my mother was lucky to get a room
in the Pavilion of Small Mammals.
Her best friend was a mongoose.
Now and then she’d bring him a rare
delicacy, an egg. He’d cup it in his paws,
cut two dainty holes with his teeth
and suck out the contents.
She woke to the roaring of lions.
The hippopotamus mooed
for his cartload of wilted leaves;
the rhinoceros grated his horn
against the metal gate.
Three owls like Fates turned parallel
heads as she passed. Llamas spat at her.
The toucans were indifferent,
side-stepping on the branches
of their one pruned elm.
Early autumn Russian soldiers arrived.
They broke twigs from the trees
to poke at the animals.
The hippopotamus hid in his pond.
My mother saw the tiny bumps
of his nostrils wrinkling the dark water.
The biggest drama starred the elephant,
bought ten years earlier from a circus keeper:
“A bad animal, difficult to train.”
Now the circus again came to town.
the circus keeper entered the enclosure:
“That’s my old buddy –
I know how to handle him.”
Moments later the enraged elephant
hurled his former master
over the fence onto the cement.
The zoo director’s breath steamed with vodka,
but he knew every single animal.
He sported long whiskers;
colleagues joked that the director spent
so much time with the animals,
he had grown to resemble a seal.
His show-off act was to walk
into the lion cage and pat
the male lion on the behind.
His favorite was the giraffe he’d brought
after the war from another zoo.
a low trolley was built,
a rope fastened around the giraffe’s neck;
two people pulled it down when the truck
approached an overpass or a tunnel.
In her new home, every day
the director went to see the giraffe.
she thrived. then her legs got swollen,
she could only kneel. One day she lay down.
The director embraced her neck, and wept.
The giraffe died in his arms.
my father visited my mother
when she lived in the zoo.
She left the town to marry him.
The three owls lit her way
with lanterns of their eyes.
The toucans stood like an orange dawn
in their inappropriate tree.