Published on Academy of American Poets (https://poets.org)


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. 

Credit


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.”
—Yusef Komunyakaa

Author


Yusef Komunyakaa

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