Ota Benga at Edenkraal
Maybe it was hog-killing time
when he arrived in Lynchburg,
Virginia, several lifetimes behind him,
the old smell of the monkey house
at the New York Zoological Gardens
receding, a broken memory left.
Not sure of the paths & turns
taken, woozy in a swarm of hues,
he stood in Anne Spencer’s garden
surrounding the clapboard house,
but when she spoke he came back
to himself. The poet had juba
in her voice, & never called him
Artiba, Bengal, Autobank, or
Otto Bingo. Her beds of tiger
lilies, sweet peas, & snapdragons
disarmed him. Her fine drawl
summoned rivers, trees, & boats,
in a distant land, & he could hear
a drum underneath these voices
near the forest. He never spoke
of the St. Louis World’s Fair
or the Bronx Zoo. The boys
crowded around him for stories
about the Congo, & he told them
about hunting “big, big” elephants,
& then showed them the secret
of stealing honey from the bees
with bare hands, how to spear fish
& snare the brown mourning dove.
One night he sat in the hayloft,
singing, “I believe I’ll go home.
Lordy, won’t you help me?”
A hoot owl called to the moon
hemmed in a blackberry thicket,
& he bowed to the shine of the gun.
Copyright © 2016 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 8, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.