Tuesday Poem: “The zookeeper sings the blues” by Jeni Curtis
The zookeeper sings the blues
I’m here to keep the animals, wolf, bear or kangaroo,
I’m the keeper of the animals, wolf, bear or kangaroo,
We aim for preservation, that’s the purpose of a zoo.
They live in their enclosures behind tall strong iron bars,
Dwell in their enclosures, behind tall safe iron bars,
So people can enjoy them, their claws, their jaws, their scars.
You can hear the snarling tiger, and feel the lions roar,
The snarling fierce tiger, the resounding lion’s roar,
The squawking of the parrots, toucan, lorikeet, macaw.
The lemur from Madagascar has a long ringed curly tail,
He came from Madagascar with his long ringed curly tail,
To live in a foreign country, behind bars as if in jail.
The grey-backed hippopotamus, she swelters in her pool,
The gap-toothed hippopotamus rolls over in her pool.
It’s round and small and shallow, no way to keep her cool.
Their eyes watch me constantly, topaz, agate, amber,
I feel their eyes follow me, topaz, agate, amber,
They bore me like stigmata, with reproachful silent clamour.
The Romans they had circuses, the Spanish they have bulls,
The Romans had bread and circuses, the Spanish slaughter bulls.
All forms of entertainment to satisfy the fools.
The saddest of the animals, the big black chimpanzee,
He huddles in the corner, the sad-eyed chimpanzee,
We contemplate each other, which is him and which is me?
So many are endangered, we keep these in reserve
We’ve killed off all their brothers, we keep these in reserve,
If we manage now to save them, it’s more than we deserve.
One day I’ll take my keys and I’ll open every door
I’ll take my bunch of keys and open every gate and door
I’ll make a bid for freedom, reverse to jungle law.
But for now I take my bucket, filled with bone or grain
I take my metal bucket filled with bone and flesh and grain
I whisper to the animals, “you’ll soon be home again.”
© Jeni Curtis
Reproduced here with permission
About the Poem:
Recently I have been enjoying the Canterbury Poets’ Collective spring season of poetry readings, as first mentioned here, and one thing I have been enjoying most is the very high standard of the open microphone contributions, from both a range of established poets and newer voices. One of those newer voices is Jeni Curtis, who was one of the Hagley Writers’ Institute members to read in the opening week of the season.
More recently, Jeni read the The zookeeper sings the blues as part of an open microphone session—and although there were definitely many fine poems read that evening, “The zookeeeper” was the ‘standout’ for me. The clue to the form Jeni has chosen is in the title, i.e. “the blues.” This form is known as the “Blues Stanza”, where the stanza form is a rhyming triplet consisting of an initial two lines of repetition—either exactly the same or slightly variated—and a third line elaborating on that double statement. Given the form’s origins in Afro-American music, a strong beat throughout is important, but can be either regular or irregular.
You will find out more about the Blue Stanza form, beyond my brief summary, on Poetry Magnum Opus, here.
Getting back to The zookeeper sings the blues, I loved—and love—the use of repetition as well as the clever use of rhyme. The latter adds to the strength of the poem rather than falling into the trap of seeming facile (always the great pitfall for rhyming poetry, in my view. The combination of the repetition, rhyme, and regular beat builds through the poem to the strong conclusion. But probably what I liked most of all about this poem was that in the tradition of the Blues Stanza form it has something to say: it moved me when I first heard it and moved me again, in exactly the same way, when I read it on the page. And that, for me, is a poem.
Jeni Curtis has been a teacher for longer than she cares to remember. Currently, she teaches English at St Andrew’s College, Christchurch, New Zealand. She has a keen interest in Victorian literature and history. She is President of the Christchurch branch of the Dickens Fellowship, and editor of their magazine, Dickens Down Under. She has published poems in The Press, Blackmail, English in Aotearoa and International Literary Quarterly. Jeni is in the second year of the Hagley Writers Institute, writes mainly poetry, prose poems and short short prose, but has been trying her hand this year at short stories.
To read the featured poem on the Tuesday Poem Hub—and link to other Tuesday Poets posting around NZ and the world—either click here or on the Quill icon in the sidebar.