Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Poetry in the Zoo

After an early afternoon lunch with my editor last Wednesday, I had a few hours to kick around, combined with the ambition to walkabout in Manhattan. What I didn’t have was energy. I’d gotten up very early to catch my flight, without the luxury of going to bed early the night before.

So from West 56th Street between 5th and 6th avenues, I made it as far as the Midtown-facing side of Central Park. At least the weather was good. In fact, it was flawlessly dry and warm. Somehow, in the dozen times I’ve visited New York, I’ve almost always had good walking weather, even in August or November. Then again, I’ve never been in January or February.

Last week the park was still very green, with just a dash of fall. Just inside the park, next to Central Park South, is an imaginatively named body of water, the Pond, which has a bright green surface these days. Pond scum, I thought. Not pond scum, all passersby are told by signs, but eco-friendly duckweed. Probably the Central Park Conservancy, which manages the park on behalf of the city, got tired of people complaining about the pond scum.

Near the Pond is the Central Park Zoo. It was just the thing: not far away, not too large, and new to me. I like zoos anyway, sometimes even better when there are no children to shepherd around. The Central Park Zoo is exceeding handsome, completely rebuilt according to a Kevin Roche design in the 1980s, with a lot of brickwork and plantings. It’s divided as the Earth is, into temperate, arctic, and tropical zones—the latter two formed (mostly) by indoor exhibits, while the temperate exhibits were outdoors, taking advantage of New York’s temperate location.

Wandering around, I saw penguins, puffins and polar bears in the arctic chambers; otters, red panda, marsh turtles and snow monkeys in the temperate zone; and a selection of colorful birds, including the remarkable white-fronted amazon in the tropics. Believe me, those Google images do it no justice.

Before long, I started to notice the poetry posted near the animal habitats. Besides the usual zoological information provided on signs, the zoo has also erected permanent signs offering verse to visitors. Generally, the lines had something to do with animals, though sometimes only tangentially.

Famous poets were represented: Sappho, Auden, Frank O’Hara, among others. There was a cross-section of poems translated from other languages as well: Spanish, an Inuit tongue, haiku by Issa, and more. Reading about these signs when I got home, I discovered that they were installed only this year. I’ve never seen anything like them at a zoo.

In the temperate zone, I spotted a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye called “Famous”—white letters on green Plexiglas, very aesthetically done. By golly, seeing that did me good. She’s a San Antonio poet who visited my high school English class one day in 1978 to read some poems. I think, but do not remember for certain, that she actually attended my high school before my time there (she would have been a new college grad in ’78). I didn’t write “Famous” down, but I did read it all, with considerable enjoyment.

I fed “river fish famous Nye” into Google this evening, and sure enough there it was:


By Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and is not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

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At 11:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to the capsule biography of Naomi Shihab Nye posted on the American Poems website (http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/Naomi-Shihab-Nye) she was born in 1952 and grew up in St. Louis, Jerusalem & San Antonio. She was born the same year I was, so if she attended AHHS, she would presumably have been in my class or the one behind me. I'm afraid I have no recollection of her, but then, social retardate that I am, I didn't know that many people, even in my own class. ANK

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Geof Huth said...


You're doing poetry now? I thought that was my bag?

Oh, and it is a pleasant little zoo.


At 11:40 PM, Blogger Dees Stribling said...

Doing poetry? No. Seeing poetry. The zoo's onto a good thing. There ought to be more public poetry.


At 9:22 PM, Blogger Dees Stribling said...

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