Features, Poems

Phillis Levin: “A Rhinoceros at the Prague Zoo”

Phillis Levin’s “A Rhinoceros at the Prague Zoo” is one of the lead poems in the Fall-Winter 2006-07 (v1.n2) issue of Poetry Northwest. When asked to submit a few comments about the piece, she provided us with an illuminating overview:

“‘A Rhinoceros at the Prague Zoo’ was provoked into being by a photograph on the front page of the New York Times on August 14, 2002. When I picked up the paper that morning, I saw the picture of a rhinoceros hanging mid-air, his eyes covered by a blindfold, his belly surrounded by big red straps that looked just like suspenders (and they were, quite literally). The image appeared bizarre, almost comical. But the blindfold was disturbing, though it, too, possessed an aura of the absurd, since its pattern was so familiar (at first glance I did not comprehend what it actually was, one of those typical checkered napkins so common in pubs and taverns).

“The caption explained the reason for the blindfold, and the dire nature of the situation in Prague, where the Vltava river had swollen the night before, rising until the waters broke its banks, causing destruction throughout Bohemia—the biggest national disaster in modern Czech history, their worst flood in five hundred years. When I read the article, I discovered the fuller significance of the image, understanding it in context, which is why I chose the epigraph that accompanies the poem. I also did not want to burden the poem with information; including the epigraph creates, as well, a stark contrast in language.

“But before reading the news article, I had already written the opening lines of the poem, which came to me in a flash. It is more accurate, though, to say that from the moment I saw the photograph and read the caption, and grasped the significance of the blindfold, I heard those lines in my head, actually saying them aloud up through line thirteen, then scribbling them into a notebook. I composed the rest of the poem after reading the article through, and eventually cut a number of stanzas, compressing the poem as much as possible, cutting anything that felt journalistic.

“The central actions are the drama of lifting and of covering, and of sharing what can cover and soothe. That is what I am able to say now, four years after writing the poem. But in the process of writing it, I was articulating something at a time when it had become difficult for me to write a poem containing a complete sentence. In fact, until the very final version of the poem, there was no punctuation at all. Much of the work I composed in early adolescence worked in this fashion, with lineation determined by breath, rendering punctuation unnecessary. Eschewing punctuation leads the reader to speak the poem to make it make sense; simplifying lineation, reducing the line to simple syntactic units, brings the poem closer to a transcription of speech. But there were very concrete reasons for this seeming stylistic reversion, and they were far more neurological than literary.

“In retrospect, it is clear that the picture of that blindfolded rhinoceros and the thought of the other rhinoceros (I have a poem entitled ‘The Other Rhinoceros,’ as well), and of poor stubborn Kadir, embody something utterly uncanny that stirred my imagination and triggered a series of associations. In the process of composing this poem, I was not thinking at all about that day in New York on September 11th when I looked up in the sky and saw, with a direct line of sight, two giant candles burning. And yet, it is impossible for that experience not to have affected my response to the plight of that rhinoceros, who, after all, was being lifted out of the very disaster his fellow land-bound creatures could not avoid. Less than a year before, hadn’t we all been looking at what we did not want to see? Didn’t we want to be lifted out of what we were sinking into? But again, it is easy to talk about these things after the poem is written, as if it were made to raise an issue, when it was an utterance that took me by surprise.

“Still, I had a sense of the public nature of my voice, of language emerging from—and meeting—an emergency, of every line being a gesture. Thus the closing lines of the poem were the most challenging, for they would be the final gesture, and I did not want anything grand or sublime. I did not want to end on an ‘uplifting’ note, i.e., on ‘bliss’– and so I had to struggle for the closure that honored the poem’s original impulse and originating image. That was the most difficult aspect of the revision process, and finally I grasped that I had to follow through by bringing the blindfold back into the picture, focusing on it from close up (the napkin) and from afar (the chessboard): for indeed it was only a piece of cloth that someone with good instincts, and probably a bit of panic, grabbed from a table, knowing that the only way to save the rhinoceros would be to cover his eyes. For a long time the final image was of a patch of roses, not a chessboard; but I landed on the latter because it is flatter and colder, revisiting the distant, detached perspective from which we began.

“There are two other things I will add: Shortly after I finished the poem, a choreographer who read it decided to write a dance piece whose gestures are based on images and actions in the poem (the piece was performed in Slovenia as part of a full-length concert of dance, music, and poetry). When I saw her ‘Dance of the Blindfolds’ and the rituals of lifting being performed, I understood the visceral nature of those movements, their universal nature, and began to see how the photograph that sparked the poem was an image of rescue.

“The other matter concerns literary antecedents for a poem that I composed without any conscious effort at allusion, or any awareness of echoes. A few weeks ago I asked myself, in thinking about what to say for this comment, whether this poem had been influenced in any specific way by another writer or another poem. Why did that strange image of the rhinoceros strike me as completely odd and somehow familiar? Of course there is the biblical story of Noah shadowing the rhinoceros’s lost partner, the thought of all those animals not surviving the flood. But why did I keep thinking of Goya? There was something more immediate, something I had read at the age of twelve, one of the first contemporary poems that touched me: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s opening poem in A Coney Island of the Mind, which I had almost forgotten. I looked it up and saw how it begins: ‘In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see / the people of the world / exactly at the moment when / they first attained the title of / ‘suffering humanity’…’; and then, a little further down the page: ‘and all the final hollering monsters / of the / ‘imagination of disaster’ / they are so bloody real / it is as if they really still existed / And they do only the landscape is changed….'”

A Rhinoceros at the Prague Zoo

While ducks and swans paddled placidly on the Vltava’s rushing
waters, penguins, storks and gorillas were evacuated from the Prague
Zoo, and a crane was used to lift two rhinoceros to high ground. But
one turned violent and had to be killed, and keepers had to shoot a
35-year-old Indian elephant named Kadir as water rose to his ears
and he refused to move to high ground.

–The New York Times, August 14, 2002

A blindfolded rhinoceros
is being lifted
out of the water.
It is important he doesn’t see
what is going on.

Please pass it on:

please pass along
his blindfold
so we can be lifted, too.

Take us slowly from the flood,
the rising water
that threatens to wash
everything away.

The world keeps unraveling,
the riverbank
dissolving,
the blood flowing,

and the rhinoceros
had better keep
that blindfold on

because he is dangerous
if he sees what is dangerous.

Unlike a unicorn,
he is heavy and
clumsy and dumb.

He will crush someone
with his fear,
he will tear us apart
if he panics.

Raise him
gently,
lower him
gently
into a meadow
of cool waters.

Then pass along
the blindfold
so we can be lifted, too.

Raise us
out of the muck
onto a bed of grass,

pass the bright bandana
covering his eyes,
a blanket
of surrender,
a curtain of bliss:

a checkered napkin
taken from a tavern

or a chessboard
seen
from above.

 

Phillis Levin is the author of three poetry collections, most recently, Mercury, and is the editor of The Penguin Book of the Sonnet.

“A Rhinoceros at the Prague Zoo” appears in the Fall-Winter 2006-07 (v1.n2) issue of Poetry Northwest. Subscribe today.