Magazine article World Literature Today

Words from the Earth's Wild Bounty: The Milwaukee County Zoo | Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Magazine article World Literature Today

Words from the Earth's Wild Bounty: The Milwaukee County Zoo | Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Article excerpt

In 2009 I was asked to serve as poet-in-residence at the Milwaukee County Zoo, one of five zoos participating in the Language of Conservation, a project initiated by Poets House of NYC and funded by a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. I was to select poems for signs to be installed throughout the grounds of the Milwaukee County Zoo. One of my major goals in choosing the poems was to ensure that anyone visiting there could find at least one poem or one line or one image that was startling and surprising, in the way that poetry can be surprising. A second major goal was to help visitors perceive each zoo animal anew, its distinctive beauty and the art of its being, and to view each animal as a respected ambassador for its species and its native habitat.

One example, from among the fifty-four signs installed, is this excerpt from Linda Hogan's "Elk Song," painted in white on weathered boards and surrounded by brush and boulders in a corner of the elks' meadow.

This song is for the elk

with its throat whistling

and antlers

above head and great hooves

rattling earth.

One spring night, elk

ran across me

while I slept on earth

and every hoof missed

my shaking bones.

Les Murray's poem "Dreambabwe" is inscribed on a stone boulder near the hippopotamus pool.

Streaming, a hippo surfaces

like the head of someone

lifting, with still-entranced eyes,

from a lake of stanzas.

Each line of "In Beauty May I Walk," an anonymous Navajo poem, is painted on the eaves above the boardwalk leading into the Peck Welcome Center.

On the trail marked with pollen may I walk

With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk

With dew about my feet may I walk

With beauty before me may I walk

With beauty above me may I walk

With beauty all around me may I walk

"We hear people reading the poetry out loud as they walk. …

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