Lions

By TOM SLEIGH
At Show and Tell, in front of the whole class,
the cubs’ jaws yawned wider than the boa constrictor’s
that bolted down the lethargic, pink-eyed mouse—

how they’d nuzzle and lean into our stroking…
But when genetics took over, their cells didn’t care
if they grew up in someone’s basement or were teething

out on the Masai Mara—once their eye-teeth
caught up with their oversized paws, their pupils
tracked you with an instinctive stealth,
their yellow eyes making your skin crawl—they were lions,
after all…and so they ended up
in Gino Como’s cages, his little barbed-wire compound
at the town dump’s farthest corner
that he called with characteristic boozed-up flair,
My zoo in the middle of the mountain air.

But the smell! Think of your housecat’s musk,
hind leg lifting to spray the furniture,
raw ribs of meat beginning to spoil, piss
and ordure mixed with mud and methane
wafting from the dump—add in Gino’s
beer and whiskey breath at 10 a.m.
…and my mother laughing with him in intimate
intent—not flirting really except
in that damaged way the damaged spirit
flirts, wanting to find a mate who had
the courage of “doing dirt” if you lived both in bounds
and out: my mother knew, just as my dad
and Gino did, the fierce privilege of entering
a mind like my mother’s who took her son
not to teach him a lesson in moderation
but to show Gino and his cats as a kind of crush
on what my mother might not have openly embraced
but knew when I’d seen it would make me blush
and long to be: that difference I didn’t see
in myself because I was caged in awkwardness
and pimple-pocked shames, in my brain’s sly way
of withholding what my body, or any body,
could satisfy: but here were lions behind bars,
hunters and human prey—they looked more like babies
feeding, their eyes unblinking in that rapt,
completely concentrated pleasure, glazed faces
pink with blood. My mother laughed
with Gino at some private joke
when he lamely poked a stick into
the biggest male’s ribs to make him take
a swipe—but he didn’t even deign to lift a paw…
I thought of a boy kissing a girl, hands down
at their sides as if they both had claws
and each was the other’s prey
they’d pull down like a pride of lions shoving
their heads into a zebra’s no longer heaving belly.
And what comes back is Gino winking at
my mother in their secret, outsiders’ pact,
hesitant but bemused, edging up on it
with his whiskey-gilded, sly, we’re-in-
this-together smirk as my mother gives me
her nothing-animal-or-human-is-too-foreign-
for-you smile when a flash of sausage-white
Gino tosses up into the air gets snatched in four-inch
incisors and gobbled down: And what I thought
it was wasn’t what I’d let myself see—
the lions staring back at us,
jaws parted, panting heavily,
as if all they smelled under our clothes was more
meat—though there was something
more, some nameless drifting odor,
astringent lacquer of my mother’s hairspray
mixed with scat, musk and sweat, her wig
so tense inside its curls arranged so tightly
round each other that when she took
it off and left it on the dresser it looked
like it could spring on you and take
you in its teeth. Then Gino, pulling on
a bottle he took from inside
an old tire, offered her a drink that made her grin
her crooked grin—but looking away
quickly—not quite ashamed but not
unashamed—refuse politely, oh-so-politely.
Tom Sleigh is the author of eighty highly acclaimed books of poetry, including Army Cats, published by Graywolf Press, and Space Walk, which won the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Award. He has also published a translation of Euripides’ Herakles and a book of essays, Interview with a Ghost. He has received the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, a fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin, the John Updike Award and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an Individual Writer’s Award from the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund, a Guggenheim grant, and two National Endowment for the Arts grants, among many others. He teaches in the MFA Program at Hunger College and lives in Brooklyn.

[Purchase your copy of Issue 02 here.]

Lions

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