“Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo”

For this inaugural monthly Animal Poem post, a look at Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo” by William Matthews.

It’s a gorgeous poem from his 1973 Rising and Falling collection, which is one of my “desert island” books. The immediate beauty is of course in the largest metaphor — the snow leopards “jump / down and jump up, water being / poured,” a visual image of their physicality that is reinforced, with a heavy emphasis on the endangered aspect of the snow leopard, in the last three lines of the poem (the “them” refers to his children): “I save them whatever I can keep / and I pour it from hand to hand.” But in between that introductory image and the end, man what a lot happens in this 18-line poem.

What doesn’t happen a lot, by the by, is prepositional phrases — it’s “and three / of them here” rather than “and there are three of them here,” and “it rings high to the top, / noise of a nail driven true” rather than “with the noise of a nail” or “like the noise of a nail.” Etc. Those omissions create a graceful compactness which supports the jumping leopard image.

So first there are snow leopards jumping like water being poured. Then a “though” thought occurs to this thoughtful observer about the specifics of his analogy of water: when a glass of water is all-the-way filled  “it rings high to the top, / noise of a nail driven true” which is brought back to the leopards by way of contrast — unlike water, they “land without sound, / as if they were already extinct.”

Quite a few poets would end it there. It’s a thumper of a line closing a beautiful metaphor that’s been expanded upon and brought home. Job done.

Or not. One of the many things I love about Matthews’ writing, which tends to plain American diction, is how complicated the thoughts expressed are. The first line of the second stanza is “If I could, I’d sift them” which is already a shift of the image — you can’t sift water, though you can of course sift other things. Flour comes to mind — it’s not that big a leap from snow leopard coats to flour via the word “sift.” But in any event, in the second stanza the leopards are moved into the poet’s own hands. Then the image changes again — what’s being sifted is first fire, which is, when you stop to think about it, quite a startling metaphor, but the poem glides you smoothly over that jolt and into the idea of debt.

The poem moves, in the 13th line, into emotion, opinion. Up til now it’s all been very beautifully detailed observation. But with “I’m glad I can’t” things get complicated. It takes a minute to sort out the grammar — is it ‘glad I can’t pay the debt,’ or is it ‘glad I can’t sift them like a debt’? Or is it, ‘glad I can’t count the debt’? But of course, you can, he already has in the first line (“There are only a hundred or so / snow leopards alive”). Regardless of how the clauses sort out technically, the poem gets to have it all three ways.

In the next line and a half, the un-payable debt becomes a “loss,” which becomes a wife. A figure of speech, but one that will be made real in a second. But not before the countering thought “and I do.” Do take loss for a wife. The grammatical setup there is important — it’s not ‘but I do,’ it’s and — and I do.’

“I do” obviously hits upon the traditional marriage vow response, deepening the wife part of the language, but what I like best about this part of the poem is the simultaneous acknowledgement and denial of the idea that this is what he does. It’s both if and true. The wife, which was when this line started just a figure of speech, then becomes (presumably anyway, given the traditional nuclear family) the mother of the speaker’s children. Loss is the children’s mother. Loss which is an unpayable debt, which is sifted like fire, which is like water being poured, which is snow leopards who are going extinct.

And then the previously-mentioned final two lines bring us back to the top. In addition to prepositional phrases, there’s something else missing here, and that’s the children. They’re mentioned in the third-to-last line, but they do not seem to be at the zoo with the speaker. “Loss for a wife” is entirely about extinct snow leopards, and it is also about a wife who is lost. (This is informed somewhat by Matthews’ biography, and also other poems in the collection which are more explicitly set in a state of divorce). It makes it a much more powerful poem about the world’s loss of snow leopards than it would be if the poem had indeed ended on that thumper line of the first stanza.

“Art is about something the way a cat is about a house” says Allen Grossman (it’s such a great oft-cited quotation, I hope he really did say it). Poems are “about / their business, and their father’s business, and their / monkey’s uncle, they’re about // how nothing is about, they’re not / about about”  Heather McHugh says (in the poem “20-200 on 747). “Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo” is about extinction. It’s about watching animals. It’s about divorce. It’s about loss. It’s about how all those things are complicated. It’s about snow leopards, and how, when they jump, when watched by a lonely father, they look like water being poured.

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