In Houston

By Gail Mazur b. 1937 Gail Mazur
I’d dislocated my life, so I went to the zoo.
It was December but it wasn’t December. Pansies   
just planted were blooming in well-groomed beds.   
Lovers embraced under the sky’s Sunday blue.   
Children rode around and around on pastel trains.   
I read the labels stuck on every cage the way   
people at museums do, art being less interesting   
than information. Each fenced-in plot had a map,   
laminated with a stain to tell where in the world   
the animals had been taken from. Rhinos waited   
for rain in the rhino-colored dirt, too grief-struck   
to move their wrinkles, their horns too weak   
to ever be hacked off by poachers for aphrodisiacs.   
Five white ducks agitated the chalky waters   
of a duck pond with invisible orange feet
while a little girl in pink ruffles
tossed pork rinds at their disconsolate backs.

This wasn’t my life! I’d meant to look
with the wise tough eye of exile, I wanted
not to anthropomorphize, not to equate, for instance,   
the lemur’s displacement with my displacement.   
The arched aviary flashed with extravagance,   
plumage so exuberant, so implausible, it seemed   
cartoonish, and the birdsongs unintelligible,   
babble, all their various languages unravelling—
no bird can get its song sung right, separated from   
models of its own species.

For weeks I hadn’t written a sentence,
for two days I hadn’t spoken to an animate thing.   
I couldn’t relate to a giraffe—
I couldn’t look one in the face.
I’d have said, if anyone had asked,
I’d been mugged by the Gulf climate.
In a great barren space, I watched a pair   
of elephants swaying together, a rhythm   
too familiar to be mistaken, too exclusive.
My eyes sweated to see the bull, his masterful trunk   
swinging, enter their barn of concrete blocks,   
to watch his obedient wife follow. I missed   
the bitter tinny Boston smell of first snow,   
the huddling in a cold bus tunnel.

At the House of Nocturnal Mammals,   
I stepped into a furtive world of bats,
averted my eyes at the gloomy dioramas,   
passed glassed-in booths of lurking rodents—
had I known I’d find what I came for at last?   
How did we get here, dear sloth, my soul, my sister?
Clinging to a tree-limb with your three-toed feet,   
your eyes closed tight, you calm my idleness,
my immigrant isolation. But a tiny tamarin monkey   
who shares your ersatz rainforest runs at you,   
teasing, until you move one slow, dripping,   
hairy arm, then the other, the other, the other,   
pulling your tear-soaked body, its too-few   
vertebrae, its inferior allotment of muscles   
along the dead branch, going almost nowhere   
slowly as is humanly possible, nudged   
by the bright orange primate taunting, nipping,   
itching at you all the time, like ambition.

Gail Mazur, “In Houston” from Zeppo's First Wife: New & Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Copyright © 1995 by Gail Mazur. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: The Common (The University of Chicago Press, 1995)

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Poet Gail Mazur b. 1937

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Relationships, Pets, Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Gail  Mazur


After nearly 13 years of apprenticing herself to poetry, during which she studied with Robert Lowell and immersed herself in the Boston/Cambridge literary scene, Mazur published her first collection, Nightfire (1978), at age 40. Other books include The Pose of Happiness (1986); They Can’t Take That Away from Me (2001); and Zeppo’s First Wife: New & Selected Poems (2006). Tess Taylor, interviewing Mazur for the Atlantic Monthly . . .

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SUBJECT Relationships, Pets, Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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