From Poetry of Place July 17, 2014
MUSIC INSPIRATION: Dangerous Animals by Arctic Monkeys
POEM INSPIRATION: "The Great Ape House" by Marianne Boruch from Poems: New & Selected (Oberlin College Press, 2004).
THE GREAT APE HOUSE Marianne Boruch In winter, the smell got worse. It took you like a soup. The giant glass-eyed ape would stare with such condescension I could feel again, walking in out of the freezing wind, how small even my largest bones—poor femur in the thigh, shoulder blades— though in that look I passed quickly to ribs, delicate, barely thicker than my breathing. I could hear my heart. And closer to the glass, others come to ee him, taunting and screwing up their human faces to be, they thought, just like this. I was quiet. I was, so help me, empty as the great savannah. But apes love trees. Banana, more bananas. I watched him toss aside the peel exactly like my British colleague, years later in Taiwan, would drop her cigarette on our office floor, saying, no dear, they’ll pick it up—when her tiny daughter went for it. But not exactly that, since his was an honest kingdom, fallen grace. The ape would turn away, though not for long. Or he’d languidly climb and do some nonchalant miracle, rope to rope. But not for long. He’d come back, stand and look at us. Rain or snow outside, everything whirled and narrowed to just that look. Like taking your eye to a telescope’s eye and losing t there, up the long dark in hope of stars. The light, always bad, mounds of hay, old cabbage heads, carrot leaf. An attendant would call to him from the upper story. But he’d keep that look for us, looking at some distant shape inside himself the way one might think a swollen river marks something in a dream. Or so I thought, since thinking is mostly trying not to drown. I know I spent too long in there. But I was twenty.
NOTICE: The way the speaker balances the description of the ape and her own feelings: “I was quiet. I was, so help me, empty as the great savannah. But apes love trees. Bananas, more bananas.” The sudden switch between "I was quiet" and the need for more bananas melds the emotions of the speaker to those supposed emotions of the animal she's observing, creating the tension that makes this poem so exciting. It is this tension that we're looking to imitate in this exercise.
PLACE: Imagine yourself at the zoo at the exhibit of an animal that scares/obsesses you.
WRITE: Write a poem from the zoo.
Use your obsessions. Use unanswerable questions. Use the weather. Build a tension between description the animal and its actions and the feelings of the speaker/the speaker's body at the zoo.