I visit the zoo.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Elephant: What now, hooman? And I hope you don't mind us calling you hooman. It just fits.

Visitor: Fine. Hooman's fine.

Elephant: We don't use names ourselves, but we get 'em. Joe Smith goes walking in the woods and sees one of us, maybe shoots one of us, and suddenly we've all got some pseudo-Latin name ending in Smithus.

Zebra: I've got a whole taxonomy tacked on to me.

Visitor: What now? We were going to talk about Major Jackson's "Urban Renewal" (BAP2004 and Poetry Daily).

Elephant: Oh, yeah. Back to names. OK, let's see if I remember all this.

In the notes, Jackson says that the story in the poem (yipes! narrative! run and hide, you non-narrative types!) really happened when he was at school: a substitute teacher (white, you have to suppose, though I don't think he says so) couldn't cope with their black names ("names strange and meaningless as grains of dirt around / the mouthless, mountain caves at Bahrain Karai / Tarik, Shanequa, Imani, Aisha"), so instead she calls the students after French painters with easy names like Braque and Fragonard. She calls Jackson Edouard Charlemont, who, he corrects her, was an Austrian who "painted the black chief in a palace in 1878 / to the question whether intelligence exists."

Zebra: What's that mean – did Charlemont mean any such thing with his painting?

Visitor: Ya got me. But that's not why we're here. We're hunting poetry.

Zebra: Oh, fine, that's we need around here, another Great White Hunter.

Elephant: So, in the notes...

Zebra: Again with the notes.

Elephant: So, in the notes, Jackson says, "To some extent, the poem pays homage to the long and great naming practices of African-Americans, whereby enterprising parents sought to endow their children with enchanting names that when uttered evoked power, prestige, and glory, despite their lack of physical or economic empowerment."

Zebra: Yeah, but more specifically, Major Jackson is also a little sensitive about being "Major Jackson." He says he's always being asked whether he's in the military, but that Major is a family name from before the US civil war.

Visitor: I can't blame him. I used to be called "Milk 'Em" by all the common Daves and Johns at school.

Zebra: Oh, poor little hooman. Try going through school with "Equus quagga burchelli" around your neck.

Elephant: Anyway, poetry, right? There's some pretty poetry in "the mouthless, mountain caves at Bahrain Karai / Tarik, Shanequa, Imani, Aisha," which reminds me (as intended, I suppose) of things like Keats's St Agatha:
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.

And Jackson makes sure that the black kids have the prettiest sounds in the poem. In the notes...

Zebra: Heh.

Elephant: In the notes, Jackson lists Kareem, Amari, and Mustafa, but he brings out the more musical "Tarik, Shanequa, Imani, Aisha" when it's time to convince the reader how lovely and evocative such names can be.

And Jackson does a fine job at the end of making words do double duty as he shifts between historic black heroes and the black schoolchildren on a playground:
...What's in a name? Saga rise and
fall in the orbs of jumpropes, Hannibal grasps a Roman
monkeybar on history's rung, and the mighty heroes at recess
lay dead in woe on the imagined battlefields of Halo.

Open vowels draw the "orbs of jumpropes," and orb suggests royal, the world, celestial. Hannibal grasps a real Roman before the line break, then only a monkeybar after it, but the monkeybar is then on "history's rung," which is a step on a ladder but also a bell sounded in history, and the solemn bell leads to children who are heroes only in their play but also to heroes receding into the past, and the "imagined battlefields" are both the product of children's imagination and the historic battlefields that stir the imagination. Whatever Halo is (real battlefield or a place in Philadelphia or both?), it suggests angels and it echoes the "orbs of jumpropes" from an earlier line.

Visitor: I liked that. Thanks, elephant.

Elephant: That's Loxodonta africana africana to you, buddy.

Visitor: Sorry.

Elephant: Kidding! Kidding! Mr Homo sapiens sapiens doesn't know a joke when he hears one?

Visitor: Sorry.

Elephant: Silly hooman.


At 8:39 AM, Blogger Okir said...

I love these conversations in the zoo. Reminds me of Alice's idylls on the shore with the mock-turtle and the dodo. Only instead of talking about soup, they are talking about poets and poems, and making fun of the hooman.


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