Monday, April 4, 2016

Poem of the Day: “Ambrose Bierce’s Zoo Tour” by John Reinhart, Frequent Contributor


Ambrose Bierce’s Zoo Tour
John Reinhart

For any who wonder where he went
after disappearing into the revolution,
Bierce, in his dotage, educates zoogoers.
The author of The Devil’s Dictionary
Ambrose Bierce
entertains and informs, as any
zoo attraction ought.

“Penguins can't fly
because long ago
someone told them
they couldn't,” he remarks
while slouched against
the penguin pen,
“and they have since evolved
less and less
capability to obtain flight
by themselves.”

This, he continues, is
the modern condition, something
akin to obesity, or bulimia,
a disease of marketing.

Speaking of,
“The ostrich is the perfect
chorus girl:
short skirt,
small head,
long neck –
she prances about
without a care, then hides
sheepishly
when noticed.”
He smiles slyly. “The absence
of a good working pair of wings
is no defect,
for, as has been ingeniously
pointed out, the ostrich does not fly.”

“Economists,” and here
Mr. Bierce finds his footing
carefully while peering into
a dark cave, illuminated
by a fire burning inside,
where shadows dance acrobatically,
“are the only other creatures
whose heads
are as far removed
as giraffes’
from the reality
at their feet.” And
one of the figures in the cave,
almost unnoticed
among the shadows, moves
enough so that the zoogoers
hear the clink of chain and
see the laptop resplendent
with graphs, charts, and
forecasts, and a virtual dartboard.

The hyena was often held in reverence,
a smirk corners its prey as the tour
approaches the dusty habitat,
“from its habit of frequenting
at night the burial-places
of the dead.” Bierce shrugs off a question.
“But the medical student does that now.”

Inside for aquatic life,
Bierce points out the “eel
in the fundamental mud
upon which the superstructure
of organized society is reared:
an animal also known as the politician.”

Next tank. “Tenure once required
regular ink spillage,” Bierce comments
with clear bitterness.
Though the octopus now
owes no obligation to anyone,
he continues the habit:
far removed from academia,
he appreciates the dark
solitude where he can think
alone.”

“The rhinoceros has only disdain
for its visitors –
sullen and sarcastic, it dreams
of getting loose and trampling
the lady who laughed
at the size of his rump.
Such dreams, ladies
and gentlemen, are the dreams
of all imprisoned creatures.”

Nearby, explaining that the elephants
are unavailable due to a tardy
packydermatologist, Bierce adds
to his audience’s vocabulary.
“A proboscis is the rudimentary organ
of an elephant which serves him
in place of the knife-and-fork
that Evolution has as yet denied him.” To benefit
the youth in his crowd, “For purposes of humor
it is popularly called a trunk.”

Hoots distract many on the tour.
“Sound familiar? Yes, my family
gatherings are the same.” The monkey
cage fairly rollicks with desire
for a television and something worth
watching “These are arboreal animals
which make themselves at home
in genealogical trees,” Bierce reads
from his notes.

Mustache twitching irritably,
Bierce continues. “Close cousin
of the politician,” a smile,
“the parrot says
what he has been told
to say and repeats it
without thought.” And
it is clear to everyone
that Mr. Bierce is particularly
pleased with his devilishly
clever description.

Mr. Bierce appears
lost in thought, pulling at his
well-groomed mustache before
launching into an enthusiastic
if apocryphal retelling of creation.

Poet’s Notes:  This poem incorporates aspects from Bierce's definitions in The Devil's Dictionary. Mr. Bierce went to Mexico in 1913, during the Mexican Revolution, and until now was presumed dead. The theme of evolution creeps into this poem, so the evolution of the poem is a fitting parallel discussion. The poem began with the penguins: the idea that we come to believe what we are told. The poem then developed into the reflections of several animals, then zoo animals, then Ambrose Bierce appeared. All varieties of found poetry fascinate me, and the character of The Devil's Dictionary fit well with the poem's existent tenor.

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