Thursday 21 June 2018

RIP Koko. My poem "Ape" was written in her honour.

Today we woke up to the sad news that Koko the western lowland gorilla has died just shy of her 47th birthday on the 4th of July. I've been fascinated by her remarkable life since I was small child reading about her in the pages of National Geographic, and I have followed the on-going experiment of animal language use conducted by Penny Patterson at the Gorilla Foundation with great interest.

My poem "Ape" from my 2010 collection The Reinvention of the Human Hand was written in honour of Koko and her achievements, and also for Michael, another remarkable language-using gorilla who had been her companion but who died when he was only 26. Today, to mark her passing, I'm posting the poem here.


for Koko, and for Michael
in memoriam


Ape born in Frisco, born out of darkness of mountain 
forests, out of rain that doesn’t fall, but hovers. 
Come, Ape, out of bushmeat trade and war zone, out of 
coffee and tea for human need. 
Come out of blood diamond, come out of strip mine, out 
of pit viper and mosquito, out of tick. 
Ape who lives in Woodside, Ape who rides in Honda, 
who wears red sweater. Come speak.
Ape of legend, come. Out of colonial science, out of Bible, 
come monster of Skull Island, of Original Sin, of 
City of Gold, come take this kitten to your breast 
and speak of love unconditional. 
What did the old men make of you, Ape, when they drew 
their Victorian cartoon, when they posed for their 
daguerreotype holding your scalp? Teeth of the 
meat-eater? Murderer’s hands? Bush devil? 
Gargoyle? Proof?
Come Morning Star, come Adversary, daughter of the East. 
Come beast-thing, come witch, child of the Nephilim, 
giant in the Earth, come demonstrate the egg-shell 
gentleness of your strength. 
And what did the young men make of you when they came 
with their machete genocide, radiating smoke? 
They made you Lamb of the wilderness, one animal’s breath 
at the centre of the green and white day. Hush-a-bye, 
hidden, quiet with your kind on the unclimbed slopes. 
There, in shadow, in the hovering rain, the family almost stirs.


Ape! Ape! We thought you were gone! We thought you 
were gone into the book. We thought the damp 
black covers of untreated hide had closed around 
you forever. 
Gone into the Book of Sasquatch. There were reports. 
There were sightings. 
Gone into the Book of Yeti. There were such bloodcurdling 
cries in the highlands, footprints that vanished under 
the snow falling in the pass. It left us cold. 
Ape, we thought you were gone. It was aboard the hulking 
wooden ships of Empire that you left us. 
It was locked inside the gilded wagons of the circus, as tin 
calliopes whistled notes of sweltering air, that at last 
you left us.
We thought you were gone into shopping cart, into camera, 
into cake. We thought you were gone, Ape, into a 
discount mall display window for twenty-seven years 
without soil or mountain, without soil or credit. 
Ape, we feared, as the valleys emptied, as the land broke into 
atolls and everything was distant, as the beaches 
crumbled and the sea was left unreachable, Ape, 
we feared the worst.
Stories make things closer. Come now, Ape, and speak. 
There are stories of a boy who, by great misfortune, 
fell into your powerful care, who lived with you 
among the bamboo and lianas, and who learned, 
as well, to be Ape. 
Tell us, Ape. Are the stories true? Was he everything that 
might make us proud? 
Or did he shame us with his nakedness? 


Ape of helicopter crash and gunboat, Kalashnikov foundling 
in the burning brush, snatched by crate, smuggled by 
truck, why be silent now? 
Come now, Ape, out of black bazaar, out of bamboo cage on 
meat-stained table, smelling of gasoline in the insect-
heavy air, come hoot the low, open vowel of your 
Ape of camera crew and cutting room, flickering between 
solid shafts of tree trunk and weightless shafts of 
light, come speak like this: flickeringtreelight
and you will conjure the world of Ape. 
We are listening. Across this forest floor darkened by limbs 
crowded with birds, through the colliding sound waves 
of their love songs and alarms, come speak. 
Tell us, Ape, in your own words, why did the young men 
come to the forest?
     Squash meat gorilla. Mouth tooth. 
And how did it sound to Ape? 
     Cry, sharp-noise loud!
And how did they look to Ape? 
     Bad think-trouble look-face.
And what has become of Ape’s mother? 
     Cut/neck, lip (girl) hole.
Come now, Ape, out of landmine and hand grenade, out of 
the smouldering charcoal fires of Virunga. Downriver 
upon the deep arteries of the Congo, upon aluminum 
wings across the sea, come speak to us.
Speak to us, Ape, in research-centre sanctuaries with hoseable 
linoleum floors. Come speak to us from government-
funded genome projects, on glass slides of blood, from 
the ancient common darkness inside cells, come speak 
to us, please, in the language of Ape. 
Come quick. Come now. The family is gathering. 

My copy of the October 1978 issue of National Geographic featuring a cover story about Koko.