Elegy for the Quagga

By Sarah Lindsay Sarah Lindsay
Krakatau split with a blinding noise
and raised from gutted, steaming rock
a pulverized black sky, over water walls
that swiftly fell on Java and Sumatra.
Fifteen days before, in its cage in Amsterdam,
the last known member of Equus quagga,
the southernmost subspecies of zebra, died.
Most of the wild ones, not wild enough,
grazing near the Cape of Good Hope,
had been shot and skinned and roasted by white hunters.

When a spider walked on cooling Krakatau's skin,
no quagga walked anywhere. While seeds
pitched by long winds onto newborn fields
burst open and rooted, perhaps some thistle
flourished on the quagga's discarded innards.
The fractured island greened and hummed again;
handsome zebras tossed their heads
in zoos, on hired safari plains.
Who needs to hear a quagga's voice?
Or see the warm hide twitch away a fly,

see the neck turn, curving its cream and chestnut stripes
that run down to plain dark haunches and plain white legs?
A kind of horse. Less picturesque than a dodo. Still,
we mourn what we mourn.
Even if, when it sank to its irreplaceable knees,
when its unique throat closed behind a sigh,
no dust rose to redden a whole year's sunsets,
no one unwittingly busy
two thousand miles away jumped at the sound,
no ashes rained on ships in the merciless sea.

Source: Poetry (October 2008).

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This poem originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

October 2008

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