Letter to America by Deborah Fries

One Poem

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Dear America:

I am lost at the National Zoo
this leafy warm Thanksgiving weekend,
somewhere near the bipedal red pandas,
whose wedding-hat tails drape like wisteria
from branches just 2.6 miles from the
White House kitchen garden where puckered
kale will soon freeze and curl, but closer
I think to the source of sweet whiffs of straw
and dung from another large species, which,
even armed with prehistoric hide and horn,
may also feel sad in this afternoon light, despite
swarms of polyglot children squealing Bei Bei,
soft wave of kids licking the glass, short slice
of the 2.5 million visitors who’ve come
to your zoo this year, even on Election Day
when I was in a Philadelphia suburb,
twitchy from the swing-state full-court press
but not lost like now—skirting Small Mammals,
searching for The Think Tank, wanting
to see Batang kiss her new son, Redd,
glimpse daddy Kyle brachiating overhead,
orange as acid mine drainage, hoping
that from his place in the sky he might
be able to see through bamboo stands
and light-wrapped trees, throngs of stroller
pushers, zebra-stalking cheetahs, first-date
nuzzlers, and point me to a place beyond
the screechy flamboyance of flamingoes,
higher, where I can see all 2016 zoo-goers
at once, crowded against cages, spilling
into the moats that separate us from beasts,
and recount their sweet upturned faces,
earnest otter eyes, extant and assembled,
to picture them in sum—plus 365,000 more—
scared, sandwiched together on Lion-Tiger Hill,
rounded up with goats in the Kids’ Farm corral,
waving from the roof of the Great Cats Gift Shop
—who together are your Lost Citizens,
the 2.8 million who each believed a vote
was a voice that would be heard, each
a peacock’s scream or lioness’ roar—
soundstorm of animal certainty, derecho
of deep human desire, so very sure our
collective shout would have your impartial
ear, rightly grab your untamed heart.




Deborah Fries, 1958, The National ZooDeborah Fries’ first visit to the National Zoo in 1958 was clouded by tragedy: a toddler had been snatched and killed by a lion the previous day. Her most recent visit to the 127-year-old Smithsonian treasure was disquieted by flashbacks of big cats, the Cold War, and tragedies you didn’t expect. She is the author of two books of poetry. Her recent poems and essays can be found in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Grit, Gravity & Grace, 0-Dark-Thirty, Philadelphia Stories, Narrative Matters, and Poet Lore.
Read poetry by Deborah Fries previously appearing in Terrain.org: four poems and two poems

Header photo of zebra at zoo by Igorowitsch, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Deborah Fries at the National Zoo in 1958 courtesy Deborah Fries.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.