A male hippopotamus, living in the Milwaukee County Zoo, is submerged in his outdoor pool, resting. Gradually the water starts to swirl, and it’s possible to see his huge girth beginning to rise from below. His small flippy ears appear and now his eyes open just barely above the surface. On the bank in a corner beside the pool, inscribed on a large stone, is Les Murray’spoem, “Dreambabwe”:
Streaming, a hippo surfaces
like the head of someone
lifting, with still-entranced eyes,
from a lake of stanzas.
This song is for the elk
with its throat whistling
above head and great hooves
One spring night, elk
ran across me
while I slept on earth
and every hoof missed
my shaking bones.
And an excerpt from Lucille Clifton’s poem “Breaklight” scrolls in raised letters across a metal ribbon draped before a glassy globe floating in a water-filled basin at the entrance to the Aquatic and Reptile Center:
light keeps on breaking.
i keep knowing
the language of other nations
i keep hearing
and i keep knowing what they mean.
These are three examples of the 54 poems and excerpts from poems installed permanently on signs throughout the Milwaukee County Zoo as part of the Language of Conservation, a project initiated by Poets House in New York City and partially funded by a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. This endeavor paired five poets—Alison Hawthorne Deming, Mark Doty, Joe Bruchac, Sandra Alcosser, and myself—with zoos and libraries in five cities—Milwaukee,Little Rock, New Orleans, Jacksonville, and Chicago (Brookfield Zoo)—to collaborate in selecting and installing poems on sculpture and signage throughout each zoo and to work with the libraries to coordinate events connected with the art.
My primary responsibility as poet-in-residence for the Milwaukee Zoo was to select the poems for installation, in consultation with my zoo and library partners. The completed project is a work of art resulting from this collaboration. Each poem is presented in a unique way on a sign designed especially for it and placed in a specifically chosen location. The poem, the font used, the size and form of each sign, the materials composing its design, and the location of the installation, all functioning together, result in an experience not like any other artistic endeavor.
Lines from “In Beauty May I Walk”, for instance, by Anonymous, Navajo Indian, are painted on the eaves of a long boardwalk leading into the Peck Welcome Center. The poem is chanting and prayer-like:
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
People are actually walking as they read the poem, the lines in rhythm and cadence with the pace each chooses. “We hear people reading the poetry aloud as they walk. How cool is that?” one of the Zoo artists reported to me.
Engraved on a wing-shaped stone in the Aviary Free Flight Exhibit, where birds fly above, circling and perching high on trees and rocks, are the lines, “The birds don’t alter space, / They reveal it”, from Li-Young Lee’s poem “Praise Them.”
Now the deep African sky
lifts a glittering claw;
we, the vulnerable, hear
the rasp of death
and twitch our haunches
as the golden cat
begins the dance.
Each stanza appears on a separate sign framed by branches fastened with rough rope. They lead down the walkway to the Big Cat Compound, where an excerpt from “The Other Tiger” by Jorge Luis Borges is painted on the wall opposite the expansive quarters where two young tiger brothers romp and wrestle together while their mother lounges, dozing.
These lines from Reg Saner’s poem “This Grizzly” are engraved in stone beside the grizzly compound where a female grizzly and her three cubs reside:
huge-humped and hulking, a sulker,
bilge-bellied, bossy-broad, is a boreal
and forest-fearsome crush of claws,
is claws alive
with bloom, with tundras of mud;
Because she had been entering spaces of human habitation in Alaska, the life of this particular grizzly was threatened. The Milwaukee Zoo director and staff, learning of the situation, made extensive arrangements, including securing the donated use of a private plane for transportation, and subsequently rescued her. After settling her into the Zoo, it was discovered that she was pregnant. She later gave birth to three healthy cubs.
Along the Wolf Woods Boardwalk, beyond which can be seen the forested Wolf Compound, and occasionally one of the wolves watching from the shadows of a thicket, are lines by Pamela Uschuk ending with these words: “What is the wilderness without the beast / and its nations of mystery?” from “Wolf Lecture.”
Observing an animal in controlled circumstances is, of course, not the same as encountering an animal in the wilderness of its native habitat. But the zoo is the only place where many of these animals can be observed by a majority of the public. And I’ve always been impressed with the fact that an animal living in a zoo is actually determining and demanding a habitat similar to its native habitat. In order to maintain healthy animals, the zoo must adhere to the needs and desires of each one. So, in this sense, the animals are in charge of the zoo. They compel the zoo to conform to their capabilities and their inherent climatic and dietary needs. Along with their physical presence, the animals bring to the zoo their sounds, their habits, their shadows, the unique music of their motions and manners, the structure of their abodes, the replications of their native habitats. Zoo animals are living, breathing ambassadors for their species and the lands of their origins, bringing the aura of their places into the experience of zoo visitors.
The first time I remember seeing poems written on signs placed outdoors was in 1987 along a footpath in the forest behind the farmhouse whereRobert Frost once lived in Franconia, New Hampshire. The poems were painted in white on brown boards, as I recall, Frost poems installed stanza by stanza, line by line, along the way. I walked on that path often during the summer weeks when I lived in the farmhouse. I saw the words of these poems covered by tree shadows shimmering with wind, sometimes in stillness. Once the silver thread of a cobweb lay across the words. Once a sign had become dislodged by the previous night’s storm. Sometimes the poems were less visible in fog, sometimes wet and fragrant with forest dew or raindrops dripping from branches above, adding their rhythmic sounds to the meter of the lines. The words presented in this way took on a new quality that I liked very much. The poems possessed the physical presence of a world constantly changing in time with the shifting details of its place. The words had taken on the life, the spirit, of the forest, and the forest had been enhanced by this exchange.
In 1995 I was again involved with poems placed in public areas out of doors when I participated in the dedication of seven poems by William Stafford, installed, posthumously, along the Methow River Valley in northern Washington state. The Methow River Poems, several written by Stafford specifically for each location, were engraved on porcelain signposts and set next to the informative signposts erected by the U.S. Forest Service at scenic stops along the drive.
As we traveled Cascades Highway 20 from signpost to signpost during the dedication, the landscape varied. The poem “Silver Star” was placed before the mountain of that name. “Ask Me” with its memorable last line—“What the river says, that is what I say”—stood north of the ranger station in Winthrop.
Near a suspension bridge swaying slightly, creaking and clattering in the breeze, the poem “Where We Are” with these lines was installed:
Fog in the morning here
will make some of the world far away
and the near only a hint. But rain
will feel its blind progress along the valley,
tapping to convert one boulder at a time
into a glistening fact…
As I read the poem “A Valley Like This” located on a high cliff, I could hear the river tumbling below. Birds wheeled overhead, and their shadows occasionally glided across the words of the poem. I could smell the sun glinting off the grasses and hear the dry buzz of insects hidden within them. The engraved letters of the poem were distinct, deep, and solid. I loved the experience of the poem standing out under this open sky where a sense of space and possibility prevailed. The words of the poem seemed sensuously one with their subject, and the music of the language, inspired by the land, was a gift to the land and became one with it.
So, in 2002, when I was asked to participate in a Colorado project in which five writers would be paired with five sculpture artists, each pair to collaborate in creating a bench to be placed along the America the Beautiful Trail (a 78 mile-long footpath from Peyton, Colorado, on the east to Cripple Creek on the west), I said yes without hesitation. The America the Beautiful Trail is a portion of the American Discovery Trail, America’s first coast-to-coast trail.
My partner was Steve Wood, a local artist known for his creative and inspiring public art projects. We collaborated to create a river bench set along a creek passing through Green Mountain Falls (population 753), one of the five communities that had agreed to accept and maintain a bench. I visited the spot we’d chosen just off the path beside the creek several times and over a few weeks wrote nine short poems related to the location.
I wonder if the willow’s shadow
lying across the creek is water
or air or the ghost of the tree
Steve designed and constructed a cement bench ten feet long supported and secured by boulders found in the area. He solicited the help of the community in installing the bench, which took its flowing form from the winding nature of the creek. The nine poems appear on variously shaped tiles of earth colors embedded along its length like pebbles in rippling water.
White sun on moving water
creates the rarest kind of silk.
I visited our Green Mountain Falls bench very recently and found it fully intact, having survived several years now without being damaged by weather or vandalism.
A recent visitor to the Zoo described the experience of the poems this way:
With map and list of poem titles in hand, we embarked on a quest to seek out and savor selections from a menagerie of poets. There are poems etched on exhibit glass, hanging in trees, carved into stone or wood, on curving metal scrolls, or lettered on mobiles and banners. Like trying to spot a well camouflaged animal, the poetry will suddenly reveal itself to the attentive hunter. Standing silently amid the swirling throng and having a poem perfectly connect to creature or place is a revelation. Alison Apotheker’s “Why I Said Jelly Fish,” Michael Glaser’s “The Presence of Trees,” and Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Other Tiger” were three favorites. To read the timeless words of May Swenson’s “Motherhood” then watch the baby orangutan Mahal cuddled in his adoptive mother’s lap is delightful, even for someone as cynical as I.
Millions of people leave their homes and travel every year to zoos, parks, and preserves, to mountains and oceans, to visit canyons, rivers, lakes, forests, and deserts. Many signs are erected in these places; some give instructions or directions or warnings; some list data, the historical and ecological facts of the location; some are advertisements. Such signs can be helpful and necessary, but people travel to these sites for a variety of reasons. Many come to remember, to restore old connections, to rekindle essential perspectives. Many come to marvel at the existence of vigorous lives other than human. Many come for the respite of wide spaces, for the strength and affirmation of the wilderness. And many are not quite certain why they have come until they arrive and meet again the full force of the bountiful, beautiful, often shocking and unpredictable power of the earth and its life from which we have arisen.
All of these reasons should be respected and acknowledged at the sites and by our arts. And yet such acknowledgment is almost always absent. I recently visited a lovely nature center located high in the mountains, very near the treeline. Paths wound through “gardens” arranged there, each representing a different feature of the landscape. Each garden was given a name written in large black letters on a flat stone native to the area, for example, Alpine Turf and Dry Meadow Garden; Talus, Scree, and Rock Garden; Bristlecone Garden. Other signs erected along the paths described the scientific research being conducted on the ecological system and explained how the flora and fauna survived in this harsh environment. All were interesting, but there were no words anywhere to acknowledge what someone might be feeling with the wondrous experience of this place, the sights, the sounds, the fragrances, the lightness of the air and brilliance of the sun, the existence of this strange, stark place high on the earth, an experience that might engender both delight and trepidation. Flat slabs of stone were easily available for slates, and there was space aplenty for such words to be present. But they were missing.
Expressions of astonishment and gratitude for the earth in all its details of life are abundant in our literature and being written today by talented poets living in every region of the country, of the globe. In partnership with sculpture and visual artists, poetry of this sort could easily be presented in creative ways at our parks and zoos and gardens, adding a level of enjoyment and awareness to our experience of the earth. As we are affected and altered by the living earth, I believe the earth is altered by the words we choose to use as we experience its lives and its features. We have available to us a vibrant heritage of poetry that has always attempted to touch what matters most to the heart and core of our being, to capture in language the music of our deepest fears and our most energetic pleasures, and to celebrate that which is forever mysterious throughout the wild universe, our home.
Header photo — painted tiles and lines from Wendell Berry’s poem “Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer” at the Milwaukee County Zoo — by Pattiann Rogers.