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.
About this Poem
“Over a decade ago, the poet Carrie Allen McCray told me that, as a child, she had known Ota Benga—the Congolese man and Mbuti Pygmy who had been exhibited as an oddity in a ‘human zoo’ exhibition in New York City. Ota Benga had lived with McCray’s mother in Lynchburg, Virginia. Later I learned that he had also known and trusted the poet Anne Spencer, and there the poem began in my psyche.”
Poet Yusef Komunyakaa first received wide recognition following the 1984 publication of Copacetic, a collection of poems built from colloquial speech which demonstrated his incorporation of jazz influences.
Date Published: 2016-04-08
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/ota-benga-edenkraal