Zoo


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With the memorial
to the Murdered Jews of Europe
I meld,
and am cold and grey and blank
and the emptiness undulates
like the underfoot Berlin ground.
And I touch each stone to try and feel,
but no,
and I don’t know how to react to a concrete fact.
And I know, unlike those Jews
I just exist here, soundless, breathing.

Later in the zoo
a leopard grazes his head
repetitively
against a corner of his cage
and his suffering now
means more than all of humanity’s past.

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32 thoughts on “Zoo

  1. This touched a very uncomfortable memory, from 2009, when I went to Iraq to rescue three animals who’d been befriended by US soldiers and I accompanied the animals back to the soldier’s families in the States. During my 4-day stay, I was taken to the Erbil zoo. I had no idea such torture chambers for animals still existed, all for the sake of entertaining sick, ignorant people, and that people like us could do nothing to remove the animals, or improve their conditions and treatment, except bring the animals proper food, rather than the chocolate bars visitors could buy them, or the leftover curried rice from the hotel next door. We went to the market and bought two days’ worth of appropriate food for each specie, and we tried to show the owner this was what they required as we fed each one. He seemed interested, but who knows if he truly cared or understood, or was financially able to purchase it for them. Many nights I’ve been haunted by the eyes of that bear, the dog, the lion and camel, but most of all, the hyena. Out of the fifty or so animals who were trapped in that Hellhole of a place, his were the eyes that bore into me, branding me with their fear, pain, and despair.

    Your poem was not sentimental, and it put across the perspective I felt back then. It is horrid enough when we sully ourselves with acts of brutality and atrocity towards humans, but when we do it to animals, there are no words that convey the size of this sin.

    • It was initially some thinking on the memorial and how it functions with respect to its subject matter, but as I was writing I knew it was becoming more about myself and my rationalizing the lack of emotion felt. At that point I knew the leopard I met the next day had a place here.

  2. Cruelty to animals is an unforgivable side effect of inhumanity and one, which they cannot answer or tell us how they feel. The holocaust comes as close as anything to treating humans in the same way; the Jews, under an utterly evil Nazi regime had lost almost all control, they had no voice and no defence. These inseparable facts and the unexpected ‘turn’ in your poem, Brian, elevates it to the very special.

  3. ugh. i am not a fan of animals in cages unless they are being rehabbed….we used to have an eagle sanctuary and we would go see them…for them they either healed and were released or were given a quality of life that could not be maintained in the wild…tying this in to the holocaust was powerful…i went to the holocaust museum in dc and it rocked me….

  4. In this juxtaposition, the live animal gives the narrator a way to play out his feelings. This is immediate, something he can do something about. I have enough emotion about the Holocaust to never want it compared to anything, but what is a person to do with the pain? Your poem touches that subject for me.

    • God forgive me, but the leopard came almost as a relief, even though it was something I could do nothing about. Rather like those periods of low mood when it is an exhilaration to be crying and distraught, rather than just feel nothing at all

  5. We can learn from the past, but act in the now – suffering is suffering. It is important to keep the Holocaust in mind and try to relate to it despite the impossibility of grasping the magnitude. This poem explores this difficulty for me.

    • The holocaust memorial, is a huge giants causeway type structure, 1721 huge concrete slabs which seem to challenge you to project your feelings/thoughts onto it. I felt empty whilst there.

  6. I wonder how much poetry would be written without the presence of suffering. And perhaps the saddest thing is how little suffering seems to teach us as human beings. We can remember the suffering of many at the hands of the Nazis – Poles, Russians, Romanies, homosexuals and followers of Judaism and none of it has been recorded in as many words as that of the latter. Which makes the tragic irony of of what Israel has become as occupier and coloniser of Palestine and apartheid State even more bitterly ironic and raises the question: Do we ever learn? Do any of the words mean anything? Does remembering actually make a whit of difference? Probably not given the various holocausts which have littered human history both before and after the one perpetrated by Nazism. And that is truly depressing.

    • It seems there has always been room in the human psyche for dogmatic fundamentalism, be it fascist, communist, or religious. I know what you’re saying about the Israeli state, although I would apply that to any country where the state and religion are bound together. And I suppose no real irony that some Israelis learned all the wrong moral lessons from experiences of the war. The Stern Gang being no better than callous killers. Does remembrance make a difference? That makes me think of all the differing motivations of those who take part in Remembrance Day parades. If it’s a choice between remembrance and forgetting, then it’s remembering that makes us who we are for good or ill. Do we ever learn? Some of us, as individuals maybe, but as a species, no, not so far.

  7. I don’t know what to write other than this evoked such a visceral response in me. How do we compare? Should we? Can we? Which is more worthy? One life of suffering is too much, be it human or otherwise. Thank you for sharing this.

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