I always thought Rilke’s panther was black
until I learned of Ota Benga and went to see
the big cats still held in the Paris zoo.
The year they put Ota Benga behind bars in the Bronx
they made a bust of him in pure white plaster,
though he was black as I thought Rilke’s panther
must have been. They labelled his bust ‘Pygmy’,
although Benga had a name and was, by then,
quite famous. He shared the cage with an orangutan,
Duhong, and a parrot whose name does not survive.
His teeth were filed to sharpened points,
a custom of his people, the Mbuti, to whom he once
belonged. When he bared them the crowd took it
for a grin. He was released before the year was out
(objections to man and monkey side by side).
A reverend paid to have his teeth crowned, put him
in a suit and took him to live in Lynchburg where
he was not lynched but never managed to escape
the thousand bars that stacked up wave on wave
between him and his lost world.
He paced the shrinking cage, his heart grew small.
When he knew there was to be no going home
he built a fire, chipped his teeth, stole a pistol,
shot himself and died. It was 1916. He was 32.