Ape House, Berlin Zoo.
living not like a plant, an inch to drink each week,
but like the grass snake under it,
gorging itself before a famine?
Gazing at me longer than any human has in a long time,
you are my closest relative in thousands of miles.
When your soul looks out through your eyes,
looking at me looking at you, what does it see?
Like you, I was born in the East;
my arms are too long and my spine bowed;
I eat leaves, fruits and roots; I curl up when I sleep; I live alone.
Like you, my mother once cradled me, pushing her nipple between
Here, where time crawls forward, too slow for human eyes,
neither of us rushes into the future,
since the future means living with a self
that has fed on the squalor that is here.
I cannot tell which of us absorbs the other more;
I am free but you are not,
if freedom means traveling long distances to avoid boredom.
When a dirty child shakes his fist in your face,
making a cry like a buck at rutting time,
you are not impressed. Indolence has made you philosophical.
From where I stand, you are beautiful and ugly at once, like a weed
or a human.
We are children meeting for the first time,
each standing in the other's light.
Instruments of darkness have not yet told us truths;
love has not yet made us jealous or cruel,
though it has made us look like one another.
It is understood that part of me lives in you,
or is it the reverse, as it was with my father,
before all of him went into a pint of ash?
Sitting in a miasma of excrement and straw,
combing aside hair matted on your ass,
picking an insect from your breast, chewing a plant bulb,
why are you not appalled by my perfect teeth
and methodical dress? How did you lose what God gave you?
Bowing to his unappealable judgment, do you feel a lack?
Nakedness, isolation, bare inanity: these are the soil
and entanglement of actual living.
There are no more elegant narratives of salvation.
The blushing, tearful, whispering college freshmen have no memory
of the newborn abandoned in a motel dumpster.
The man who by enchantment becomes a beast
does not become a man again, lurching back in the oak chair,
his death-mask bursting into flames.
Roaming about the ape house, I cannot tell which of us,
with naked, painful eyes, is shielded behind Plexiglas.
How can it be that we were not once a family
and now we've come. apart? How can it be that it was Adam
who brought death into the world?
Roaming about the ape house, I am sweat and contemplation and breath.
I am active and passive, darkness and light, chaste and corrupt.
I am martyr to nothing. I am rejected by nothing.
All the bloated garbage of a life--family disputes, lost inheritances,
languidly uttered lies, festering love, ungovernable passion, hope
bleeds out of the mind. Pondering you,
as you chew on a raw onion and ponder me,
I am myself as a boy, showering with my father, learning not to be afraid,
spitting mouthfuls of water into the face of the loved one,
the only thing to suffer for.
HENRI COLE is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently The Visible Man (Knopf, 1998). He is poet-in-residence at Smith College.