Locked up with the monkeys

Analysis by Claire Orchard

Featured in Capital #65
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Wellington Zoo 49

The aliens didn’t entirely wipe out
humans, or any species. Their purpose
indeed was very much to avoid
extinctions and zoos were retained and
augmented. But there were limits to
the resources even of star-hopping
demigods, and such economies were made
as at Wellington Zoo where, since the
chimpanzees had a spacious enclosure, the
humans were held there too; the chimpanzees
proving generally benign company,
though they did possess an extremely
annoying habit of rolling around
on the ground pointing at the new inmates.

By David Beach
From Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo, VUP 2015.

Why read it

If you’re a David Attenborough fan, I reckon you’ll love this poem. The wry, matter-of-fact tone of the unnamed speaker has the feel of a script for his next show, working title Aliens on Earth. Attenborough’s distinctively detached manner is exemplified in the understated menace of the offhand beginning: “The aliens didn’t entirely wipe out / humans, or any species”. The aliens’ impact on the earthlings they encounter, both globally and more particularly at Wellington Zoo, is dispassionately described, as if it were just another natural phenomenon being observed by the God of Wildlife Programming.

Fortunately for humanity, the aliens’ purpose is “very much to avoid extinctions”. Whew. But it turns out even “star hopping / demigods” with the best of intentions have budget restraints. And we all know that means something will have to give. Only this time, that something is us.

Why I like it

The speaker’s insouciance makes me contemplate what it must be like to be on the receiving end of this degree of detachment towards mistreatment of another species. Considering the impacts of humanity’s past and continuing actions on this planet upon the creatures we share it with, putting us somewhere we can do no more harm may be precisely what the Earth needs to protect it from the tragically inept choices we continue to make. The most surprising part of this poem for me is its ending, where I marvel at the restraint of those chimps, known for their ferocious strength, that they don’t tear their human cell-mates limb from limb the moment they get the chance.

Best moment to break out this poem

In conversation with someone who is trying to convince you market forces will take care of all this.

More like this

This poem is one of a series of Wellington Zoo sonnets, so there are plenty more to read and think about. Get a copy of Beach’s book and devour the entire sequence (sonnet 44, about a small boy about to be fed to the lions, is particularly delicious.)


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