Friday Poem

Apes

One branch, I read, of a species of chimpanzees has something like territorial wars,
and when the . . . army, I suppose you’d call it, of one tribe prevails and captures an enemy,“Several males hold a hand or foot of the rival so the victim can be damaged at will.”

This is so disquieting: if beings with whom we share so many genes can be this cruel,
what hope for us? Still, “rival,” “victim,” “will”—don’t such anthropomorphic terms
make those simians’ social-political conflicts sound more brutal than they are?

The chimps Catherine and I saw on their island sanctuary in Uganda we loathed.
Unlike the pacific gorillas in the forest of Bwindi, they fought, dementedly shrieked,
the dominant male lorded it over the rest; they were, in all, too much like us.

Another island from my recent reading, where Columbus, on his last voyage,
encountering some “Indians” who’d greeted him with curiosity and warmth, wrote,
before he chained and enslaved them, “They don’t even know how to kill each other.”

It’s occurred to me I’ve read enough—at my age all it does is confirm my sadness.
Surely the papers: war, terror, torture, corruption—they’re like broken glass in the mind.
Back when I knew I knew nothing, I read all the time, poems, novels, philosophy, myth,

but I hardly glanced at the news, there was a distance between what could happen
and the part of myself I felt with: now everything’s so tight against me I hardly can move.
The Analects say people in the golden age weren’t aware they were governed; they just lived.

Could I have passed through my own golden age and not even known I was there?
Some gold: nuclear rockets aimed at your head, racism, sexism, contempt for the poor.
And there I was, reading. What did I learn? Everything, nothing, too little, too much . . .
Just enough to get me here: a long-faced, white-haired ape with a book, still turning the page.

by C.K. Williams
from Wait
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2010

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