Saturday, December 5, 2009

Death and the Zebras

This remarkable poem by the Basque poet Bernardo Atxaga, translated by Amaia Gabantxo, appears in the current issue of the Canadian literary journal BRICK.


DEATH AND THE ZEBRAS


We were 157 zebras
galloping down the parched plain,
I ran behind zebra 24,
25, and 26,
ahead of 61 and 62
and suddenly we were overtaken with a jump
by 118 and 119,
both of them shouting river, river,
and 25, very happy, repeated river, river,
and suddenly 130 reached us
running, shouting, very happy, river, river,
and 25 took a left turn
ahead of 24 and 26
and suddenly I saw the sun on the river
sparkling full of sparkly splashes
and 8 and 9 passed me
running in the opposite direction
with their mouths full of water
and wet legs and white chests
very happy, shouting go,go,go
and I stumbled suddenly with 5 and 7
who were also running in the opposite directions
but shouting crocodiles, crocodiles,
and then 6 and 30 and 14 ran past us
very frightened, shouting crocodiles, crocodiles, go, go, go
and I drank water, I drank sparkling water
full of sparky splashes and sun;
crocodile, crocodile, shouted 25, very frightened,
crocodile, I repeated, rearing back
and running very frightened in the opposite direction
I suddenly collided with 149
and 150 and 151,
running, shouting very happy river,river,
crocodiles, crocodiles,
I shouted back, very frightened
with my mouth full of water
and wet legs and wet chest
I kept galloping down the parched plain
behind 24 and 26
ahead of 61 and 62 and 63
and suddenly I saw, I saw a gap
between 24 and 26, a gap
and I kept galloping down the parched plain
and I saw the gap again, the gap again,
between 24 and 26
and I jumped and filled the gap.

We were 149 zebras
galloping down the parched plain,
and head of me were 12, 13
and 14, and behind me
43 and 44.

9 comments:

kathleenmaher said...

beautiful, powerful, and because it's convincing, eerie.

Mark Doty said...

I feel that way too -- that despite the fact that we understand these events as metaphors for or projections of human experience, it somehow manages to convince me that this is exactly how zebras would see things, how they'd think. How did he do that?

apprentice said...

I agree with all that been said. He must have watched some wildlife footage of mass migrations - but the random numbering is the key yo it I think, it gives you the sense of the ebb and flow of a huge herd running full pelt, and we can all add our own experiences of big crowds to know how that feels.

Jason Schneiderman said...

Reminds me of Les Murray's "The Cows on Killing Day" (first line: "All me are standing on feed. The sky is shining.") But this poem inverts the anonymity of numbers into a remarkable specificity by which the zebras have an amazing knoweldge of their own identities. Love it.

Stephen said...

Wow! That is really terrific. I agree that it manages to convince one that this is exactly how zebras would see things.
Thank you!

Rethabile said...

Love it. Wish the prairie wasn't parched, though. It only sometimes is, and whatever its condition, zebras have to drink.

Jeanne said...

I think this poem is sad, because it leaves me feeling the powerful vulnerablity and innocence animals have and how hard it must be to live in the wild. Zebras are so beautiful and hold a special meaning today known as progress. It's frightening though, and I'm still afraid for them.

Mark McGuinness said...

Thank you! Great find. I agree with Apprentice that the numbers are the key to it. Strange and convincing. Also surreally reminiscent of a marathon or motor race, where all the competitors are numbered.

Maggie said...

I agree with all who said the key is in the numbers. As the poem progresses, the numbers start to function like names, making the speaker one of the herd, knowing his fellow zebras individually.