Zoological

by Fred Longworth
PenShells
First Place, August 2012
Judged by Troy Jollimore


When I counted elephants — one, two, three —
I usually got the same number
as the next guy. And when the woman
in the halter top proclaimed, “That’s an ibex,”
I was reticent to say, “No, that’s an Angora.”
But then one day, without a mutagenic
kiss of lightning, without even a drag-line
of miracles tied behind a VW Jetta
like a string of tin cans, I suddenly knew
the forty tessellations of a tortoise shell.
And the next day, why meerkats often clan
in groups of twenty.

I’d be standing at the rail, as the Siberian tiger
paced across his enclosure,
and I’d turn to the woman next to me
and launch into a vivid tale of how the tigers
attack and kill adult brown bears.
Usually she would turn away,
maybe even saying, “Go bother someone else.”
Sometimes she’d flag a zoo employee
and complain about the strange man
who wouldn’t shut up.

Would it surprise you to learn
that one afternoon a zoo-keeper locked me
in a cage with a python that liked to gamble,
and I lost sixty dollars arm wrestling
for cash before the keeper let me out?
He later said it was a prank. I wonder
if Socrates’ hemlock cocktail was a prank.
Did I tell you that toucans are frugivorous
except when they aren’t? Just like I love
the zoo, except when I don’t.
Besides, nowadays it’s only in the off-times
that they’ll let me in.


It’s hard to make humor work in poetry, and when it does the reader is always grateful. There’s no way for a reader to get to the end of this poem without finding himself longing for the bits of information referred to but not offered: why do meerkats often clan in groups of twenty? Is that even true? I, too, have often wondered whether “Socrates’ hemlock cocktail was a prank.” This poem would have won even without it, but in keeping with my practice I awarded 50 bonus points for its highly effective use of the word “frugivorous.” I might title my next collection “Frugivorous,” come to think of it. --Troy Jollimore

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