Over ten weeks spanning June, July, and August 2020, Val Vinokur composed a cycle of poems documenting life during the COVID-19 pandemic and published weekly at Public Seminar. Titled “The Big Cats,” the resulting series serves as a poetic diary, a kind of “Waste Land” with hyperlinks, responding to the summer of 2020 in real time — and with lyricism, wisdom, and grace.
THE BIG CATS
One of the tigers was eating my mother. He bit her arm off and started chewing on it. “What kind of story would you like to hear? I know a good story about a rabbit.”
“I don’t want to hear a story,” I said.
“OK,” the tiger said, and he took a bite out of my father…
“Those were my folks,” I said, finally.
“We’re sorry,” one of the tigers said. “We wouldn’t do this if we didn’t have to, if we weren’t absolutely forced to. But this is the only way we can keep alive.”
“We’re just like you,” the other tiger said. “We speak the same language you do. We think the same thoughts, but we’re tigers.”
“You could help me with my arithmetic,” I said.
— Richard Brautigan, In Watermelon Sugar
“The panther was all right.”
— Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist”
In the Bronx the tigers have come down
with a dry cough and febrile dreams, not
metaphors but also metaphors: If at first you
don’t succeed: frame thy fearful symmetry,
Tyger Tyger, forced to burn in solidarity.
Jackals in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Whales
in Marseilles. Mountain goats descend to breathe
the rich air of the streets of Wales. Pandas drunk
on privacy copulate in the Hong Kong Zoo.
Nature adores a vacuum. All of us locked
inside with our vacuums, stewing in our dirty
juices, cleaning, sweeping, washing our hands
raw, as if taken by a virus, metaphor to the crown
that anoints the black necrotic lung, the buzzing
in the skin, storm in the blood, shiver in the heart.
Nature has returned from exile. Now we are
refugees again, this time from the civil refuge
of our stupid lives, masqued against the red
death, shouting at each other six feet sideways
across the length of a cadaver.
Homo homini lupus. Born of wolves and so
the tigers ate our parents and helped us
with our math: exponents and rates of attack and
dread parabolas of our demise. When he was six,
Richard Brautigan’s real mother left him
and his two-year-old sister by themselves in a motel room
for two days. His father claimed he did not know
he had a son. Raised by tigers like the rest. “Messy,
isn’t it?” is what Richard wrote on his suicide note,
unless he didn’t. The tigers taught him how
to twist the sinews of the heart and keep the fur tidy
and arithmetically clean, avoiding all the unhappiness
of man by staying alone in his own room.
Last night I dreamed there was a tiger sleeping
in the bosom of the family, the same light canary
color as the dog. And as with all things, it fell
to me to get his groceries and think on how
to settle him in our oneiric car to hide in our
gingerbread house for forty days and forty nights
and forty years in the wilderness of forty thieves.
A wounded animal conceals itself
to hide from death and to seek it.
In childhood fever dreams, a mass
would spread like an eclipse from inside
the body, heavy as a dark moon engorged
on lymph, swelling on itself, impossible
until it disappeared even more impossibly.
What self to preserve in loneliness where
fissures appear in the hide when the tongue
starts looking in the fur for wounds to lick.
The Leviathan swallows every single creature,
every last child of the kingdom of pride, its
baleen straining every article of nonsense
that swimmingly identified us to ourselves.
God asks Job who can draw out the Leviathan
with a hook or snare his tongue with a rope
or open the doors of his face. But nobody
answers the damn question. And pride has
closed our eyes like flowers of the night,
soft tight blossoms that we are, crushed
to save whatever world comes next.
The next season of the Future
has been cancelled. The producer
left the show to work on Tiger
King. The Past is unwatchable,
a show that was about Nothing,
while all the while Something or
Everything oozed and ciliated and
fermented and burst into the Present,
this day that won’t be seized, like a slippery
carp with clouded eyes. Tiger catches
Joe Exotic by the toe. He won’t run,
let him go. My mother said Bill Gates
is going to pick the very last one.
Eggs, butter, cheese, bread,
stick, stack, stone dead.
The virus has to get a life, lying around
dormant in sweat pants and a Mötley Crüe tour jersey,
curly red birthday crown on his undead head — sad,
lonely, the party is elsewhere. Life is so close,
just on the other side of the membrane, a pulsing
breath distant, laughter and toasts and
the muffled sound of something passed around,
and he can almost see himself there: Is that dancing?
May I have this dance, milady? Tik tok, load it up,
this shit is going viral, am I right? Guys?
The virus is born and already dead, a script
for another life’s dis-ease. No one
will pity the virus — even if they had
the insatiable compassion of Sonia Marmeladova,
her moist eyes devouring Raskolnikov.
The virus didn’t murder his landlady and her sister
because he was Napoleon.
The virus never heard of Napoleon,
cannot murder, only slip quietly
onto the party bus to get a life, at last.
It was the tiger who spoke first.
“Today’s lesson will be Latin:
sincerus — without-wax — whence
your word sincere. When sculptors
completed statuary for sale, they would
fill with wax the holes that had emerged
in marble. Which wax would darken
and fall away long after the buyer
had brought the figure home.”
On Memorial Day weekend
the park was sunlit green and clean
forgot about the virus — mylar balloons,
masks off, baby showers, outdoor weddings
ten rows deep. Freedom for the free,
and the next day, footage of a knee
pressing on a neck, at leisure, like the most
natural thing in the world, the nape
a perfect cradle for a kneecap resting.
Come and see the tigers lick us with their rough
indifferent tongues as our wax darkens,
falls away and we are left sincere, unwaxed,
our marble bleached and full of pocks and pits
like statues toppled into shallow water.
Did the knee know the mother now dead
who made the neck in her living womb (made
without fear, nothing the like upon the earth)
who stitched it to the base of the skull
with such care, down to the supple spine
bristling with tendrils of touch and alarm,
who made the thinking fingers of a child,
the soft full lips of a son offering his final
words to her? “I can’t move mama mama
I can’t I can’t I’m through I’m through…”
The tigers sing: We never
ate your parents. So what
if we ate your parents.
They were no angels
and neither are you.
It takes oxygen to talk,
and carbon to listen,
and helium to fly,
and hydrogen to burn, baby,
and lithium to level,
and chlorine to clean you
from the inside out,
and strontium to cancel bone,
and cadmium to turn
The elements conspire and tempt
our pride to free them from the ground —
elements erupting like stern virtues
and sulfurous pyroclasts,
a meet unhappy conversation
that makes enemies of friends
and barbarians of neighbors.
The elements conspire and leave us
— solitary, blind, and groping —
between pit and pendulum,
between the darkling nothing —
a stiff and airless cackled maw —
and the inexorable blade that wants
to cut our bonds and
cleave our heart.
Everyone is writing letters
that nobody will read, except
the tigers pawing at our papers
with such delicacy as they roar
with laughter at our careful English:
We only taught them Latin and arithmetic
— at least we can’t be blamed for this!
The fragile thing that breaks
will cut you best — not like
a knife but powdered glass,
tree ornaments crushed underfoot,
tracking bloody sock prints
away from the scene of celebration,
a holiday that always marked the birth
of something you could not undo.
Follow your own feet uphill, fix
your gaze on the undeliverable missives
flying back to their return address,
back to their stiff basaltic pillows
creeping towards our bedrooms
like Vesuvius to Pompeii.
If for some reason you have missed
the touch and breath of a fellow
human primate, pick up a sign and march
and you just might feel the unmasked
handling, heat, and halitosis of the State,
which cannot find a cure for citizenship
and cannot federalize care, but will spray
fresh pepper in your eyes like a lackey
livid, liveried, and eager to restore your faith
in the faithlessness of laws.
This palpative uncommonwealth, a thing held
or pulled apart like a tightrope or meat off the bone.
It’s a symbol, apparently, the mark of a creed:
syn — together; bole — throwing. But we are cast
into the repleted gullet of an ungoverned beast,
to feast like microbes on his undigested cud,
until he’s had his fill of us and we of him.
Good fences make good neighbors,
and good proverbs do no favors.
In this omnivorous lactose intolerant age,
the solid frozen-ground-swell melts
into the humid air, into a rainbow slick
of fuel and water, microplastic and sargassi,
and everywhere there is something
that does so love a wall.
Build the Wall! the Big Cats would taunt us,
as Alibaba flies carpets and smart watches
over the Great Wall of China, and trucks
bring strawberries and fentanyl from the south,
while spouses put up screens between each other
and their meddling cartoon kids as the forty days
turn into forty months.
Behind the thick blue smudge there is a wall
of feds in camouflage. Against them is a wall
of moms and then a wall of dads with leaf-blowers.
I am a wall and my breasts are like towers.
I sing a song of songs about a wall of walls
that might just maybe keep the soul intact,
under a bushel hid.
Val Vinokur teaches literature and translation at The New School and is the founding editor of Poets & Traitors Press.