My Education at the Zoo

Poet: Polly Clark

There is a rule which I am born knowing,
from the moment I slip out, and my mouth

becomes that anguished, red, newborn hole,
its ridge of unborn teeth uselessly bared.

I know this rule and am flailing against it,
but in later years I come to an uneasy acceptance;

my unusual physical strength is a testament
to its weight. When I am 16

I can push a barrow overflowing
with rolling cow haunch and pony carcass

all the way up the hill to the wolves.
Only the strongest of the strong men can do it:

there is laughter, and something else, a recognition.
On New Year’s Eve, when one year metamorphoses

into a dream of another, they kiss me
with uneasy, snarling kisses.

The Amazon parrot whirls at me,
a green screech as I approach his nest;

next door, the cockatoo is pacing up and down,
he clambers up me as if I were a gnarled tropical tree,

lodges his head down my shirt between my breasts,
murmurs (you must incline your head to hear his words)

fuck you bitch, his yellow eyes blinking.
I’m afraid at the end I begin to fall apart,

and accidentally set three pairs of lovebirds free
and the cockatoo, who simply climbs the nearest tree

and hurls insults (but suddenly the words begin to come,
secretly when I am alone at night).

The real men bask at lunchtime, like lions keeping
their violence to themselves while the sun is hot.

At night, at party after party, I find it hard
to keep from being discovered or blurting the truth.

I drink ten pints, laugh at all insults,
refuse to retreat, as finally, amidst howls

of laughter at 3am, one of them emerges
wearing two bras and a nightie, his face covered in paint

and everyone cheering his victory in the game
that he is playing, that now I know the name of.