Culture & Conversation

They in their cruel traps, and us in ours

penned image

Ever since we were kicked out of Eden, we’ve been trying to get back in, and sometimes the zoo seems like the next best thing. There, we can wander amid the animal kingdom from which we’ve been exiled, looking at animals and being looked at by them, seeing between cage bars the frighteningly familiar and the deeply, wildly other.

The thought would never have occurred to me before picking up Penned, an anthology of poems about the zoo, that poetry is the perfect form to explore what we see when we look at animals, precisely because language so fundamentally separates us from our animal brethren.

Their lazy armpit scratching, their blank-faced cud-chewing, their clumsy couplings, their cages all remind us of ourselves, but we know that animals belong to a society deeply separate from our own. They don’t put each other into cages as we do, or build and demolish complex civilizations; they don’t wax their eyebrows or wear pajamas; and they certainly don’t struggle to put any of those experiences into words. Lucky them.

One might expect a book of zoo poems to be of the cutesy coffee table variety, complete with glossy photos of basking hippos and adorable, preening chimps. But while this pretty volume would indeed make a good gift for the zoo lover — or hater — in your life, Penned is about poetry as much as it is about the zoo.

Juxtaposed against each other in a single volume, these poems become a reminder of how deeply metaphor is embedded within language and how often poetry expresses the longing for a time and place before words. A wide variety of poets and poems are brought together here, and as would any of us on a sunny, Sunday afternoon, each has their own experience of the zoo.

To some, the zoo is the Id, moated neatly off within the order of the city; to others it is an oasis of sanity within the insane metropolis. Countee Cullen sees “they in their cruel traps, and we in ours.” For Lisa Jarnot, it is a place of innocence; for Robert Kroetsch, the site of transgression; for Peter Meinke, a little of both. While the editors have chosen to omit children’s verse for the most part, A.A. Milne’s “At the Zoo” is among the few to strike a childlike tone of celebration, rhyming, “There’s sort of a tiny potamus, and a tiny nosserus too— / But I gave buns to the elephant when I went down to the Zoo!”

Some pieces, such as Ted Hughes’ “Jaguar” or Emily Dickinson’s “#1206,” will be familiar, but there are a number of unfamiliar gems. Gertrude Halstead’s brilliant “panther” imagines the capture of a great cat from its own point of view, the words gradually becoming literal bars on the page. Judith Beveridge’s “The Domesticity of Giraffes,” while a work of pure and delicate observation, is easily read a portrait of a couple, suggesting that language itself has something to do with why we so easily anthropomorphize.

More than any other literary form poetry captures our ambivalence toward the very human tool of language. Words set limits even as they open expressive possibilities; they build and unlock cages with equal facility. In a collection that spans different eras and locations, biographical notes or dates for the authors — a kind of taxonomy, perhaps — would have made a nice addition here, but that’s a small complaint about a menagerie that ingeniously reveals as much about us as it does about animals. Penned shines a poignant, unexpected light on what it means to be human.


Abby Paige was a frequent childhood visitor to Quebec’s Granby Zoo where, sometime in the late 1970s, an elephant threw a rock at her mother. Years of therapy followed.

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