Dangerous Animals

From Poetry of Place July 17, 2014

MUSIC INSPIRATION: Dangerous Animals by Arctic Monkeys

POEM INSPIRATION: "The Great Ape House" by Marianne Boruch from Poems: New & Selected (Oberlin College Press, 2004).

Marianne Boruch

In winter, the smell got worse. It took you like
a soup. The giant glass-eyed ape would stare with such
condescension I could feel again, walking in
out of the freezing wind, how small even my largest
bones—poor femur  in the thigh, shoulder blades—
though in that look I passed
quickly to ribs, delicate, barely thicker
than my breathing. I could hear
my heart. And closer to the glass, others 
come to ee him, taunting and screwing up
their human faces to be, they thought, 
just like this. I was quiet. I was, so help me, empty
as the great savannah. But apes love trees. 
Banana, more bananas. I watched him toss aside the peel
exactly like my British colleague, years later
in Taiwan, would drop her cigarette on our 
office floor, saying, no dear, they’ll
pick it up—when her tiny daughter
went for it. But not exactly that, since his
was an honest kingdom, fallen grace. The ape would
turn away, though not for long. Or he’d languidly climb
and do some nonchalant miracle, rope to rope. 
But not for long. He’d come back, stand
and look at us. Rain or snow outside, 
everything whirled and narrowed to just
that look. Like taking your eye to a telescope’s eye
and losing t there, up the long dark
in hope of stars. The light, always bad, mounds
of hay, old cabbage heads, carrot leaf.
An attendant would call to him from the upper story. 
But he’d keep that look for us, looking at some
distant shape inside himself the way one might think
a swollen river marks something in a dream. 
Or so I thought, since thinking is mostly
trying not to drown. I know I spent
too long in there. But I was twenty.  

NOTICE: The way the speaker balances the description of the ape and her own feelings: “I was quiet. I was, so help me, empty as the great savannah. But apes love trees. Bananas, more bananas.” The sudden switch between "I was quiet" and the need for more bananas melds the emotions of the speaker to those supposed emotions of the animal she's observing, creating the tension that makes this poem so exciting. It is this tension that we're looking to imitate in this exercise.

PLACE: Imagine yourself at the zoo at the exhibit of an animal that scares/obsesses you.

WRITE: Write a poem from the zoo.

Use your obsessions. Use unanswerable questions. Use the weather. Build a tension between description the animal and its actions and the feelings of the speaker/the speaker's body at the zoo.