A group of amazing artist friends put together a show called Zoo as part of the July Art Crawl this past Friday here in Hamilton. I was psyched when they asked me to produce work to respond to the show, particularly as it was based on the old-timey notion of zoos—the kinds of places where animals lived in pathetically small cages, but audiences were welcomed to put their fingers through the bars, feed the animals and gaze in wonderment at specimens from places they had only just learned existed at all.
I didn’t have time or inspiration enough to produce a piece for each artwork, but I did manage to do three that I’m pretty happy with in the end. You’ll notice I’ve been calling them “pieces,” but, really, they are poems. I don’t think of myself as a poet. I do write, and sometimes I even write in verse-form, but, way back when I was the Arts Editor for the McMaster Silhouette, I wrote an embarrassing column declaring the end of poetry, so to say now that I’ve written these poems feels a bit like eating salad for a day and claiming oneself a vegetarian. That said, I do like animals, probably too much. (I waste a fair bit of time on the internet clicking links to videos and images of strange or cute animals.) I’m fascinated by their odd closeness to yet apartness from humans. We can’t ever really know what a cat thinks, what a dog sees, and yet they’re some of our nearest companions, even sharing our beds. Weird. So, I jumped at the chance to try and capture some of my own wonderment in these, well, poems.
In this and the next two posts, I want to share my pieces alongside the artworks they responded to from the show. The opening itself was a huge success. Massive, even. I’ll tell you what, you miss a few Art Crawls in this town and suddenly the attendance has blossomed exponentially—I hear more than 1000 people turned out this month. I’m sure my mind will be further blown with this September’s SuperCrawl, seeing that it will be headlined by Broken Social Scene, J. Mascis and Frank Black… but, first, Rhinoceros.
Dushan Milic did an amazing large-scale pen and ink drawing of a rhinoceros for the Zoo show, as well as a smaller study of a rhino skull. The first image is a close-up of the head from the larger piece. I’ve also included one of his studies in preparation for the final drawing, just because the line and ink work is so gorgeous. The piece I wrote in response draws on my memories of the rhino at the Toronto Zoo, who always looks so still and sad, tucked out of the way in a tiny enclosure that seems far too small for such a huge animal. Let’s see if you can figure out some of my other influences. I hope you like it.
myopic curmudgeons of the savannah,
hulking recluses of cloud forests,
the most massive things sheer lust nearly extinguished…
Nearly, but not quite, not yet,
for here you stand, immobile, immovable,
centrepiece in this constructed continent,
shivering, imperceptibly, beneath your knobby folds.
your Miocene ancestors were hairy, armor-plated beasts,
trace evidence lingering in the rainforests of Sumatra
and the artificial jungles of Cincinnati,
where wooly-coated oddities linger, threadlike.
Perhaps we should call you rhinosaurus.
Once crashing across landmasses,
now a of dwindling lot.
You’ve been on earth longer than any erect primate,
but are popped off to prop up a primate’s poor sagging putz.
From hundreds and thousands to just sprinklings in mere decades.
Another last unicorn.
If horned visages bode vanishing,
then perhaps rhinoplasty seeks to mold longevity?
Wanting to shore you up,
a tranquilizer or two brought you down.
The dream of falling and calling your name out
dragged you drugged into this tepid reality,
tasked with the repopulation of our massacre.
But you know your hair-horn is no good for the horny,
only the bloodthirsty.
Or maybe these interpretive plaques are, in Toto,
all you know of the undefined Africa from which your future was hijacked.
Perhaps in your heart is darkness,
born the orphan of a bloodless muscle-memory,
haunted by whispered days of being wild.
Another captive failing to reproduce in captivity,
do they play Paul Simon at night to make you feel at home?
Of course you refuse a lineage.
I don’t blame you.
It’s less than erotic, this enclosure, the exposure:
the peeling mural of undulating yellow grasses,
the ill-placed snapping turtle, stagnant pond,
the moping tapir next door,
the thin bed of hay.
Dust baths and mud holes can’t stimulate in such flimsy mediocrity,
let alone comely lady rhinos, no matter how exotic their Asiatic pedigree.
As you fade under the flash of cameras, slave to their auto-settings,
do you long for the innocuous life of an antlered ungulate?
With your lumbering gait in this truncated space,
do you dream the brute retaliation of a Lord Rataxes?
When you scratch against a fence rail,
do you yearn for a spine full of oxpeckers?