We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and imagination, but we can’t do it without you. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Koko, whose name meant “firecracker child,”
and whom her handler, Penny, called self-absorbed,
would position a toy gorilla’s hands with her teeth
to sign “drink.” We are most ourselves
in the water, says my swim coach. We only struggle
to breathe when we remember it can drown us.
If we can forget, we can move forward.
A man I’d like to love tells me this
about our country when the election results come in,
and all of our imaginary children disappear.
My fingers are smaller than Koko’s, but still,
I’m bad at touch screens. I check the ballot
twice before pressing Vote. I don’t want
to do it wrong. And call me judgmental for hating
every hand who wrote in the name
of a beast. To them, I am living,
but my survival isn’t worth nearly as much effort.
Yet, we all take the sticker; we all
brag of our civic duty, gliding home
on a wave of solidarity that feels
like kinship, which is what one Twitter troll
quipped about Isaiah, the black boy who fell
into Harambe’s confused hands: Just going
to see his cousins anyway—what’s
the fuss? We’re dragging each other
through the moat, the space separating
human from feral. Koko never had
babies because she never had a coven,
no sister-mothers to help her groom or forage
for food, save Penny, who taught her her first betrayals:
the signs for “eat” and “browse”: the lettuce on which
she was chewing when she picked out a mate
she would never feel comfortable enough to let
touch her—not tenderly, not savagely, not the way
the Great Apes mate, which I do not know
because, contrary to popular opinion,
I am not one. There are many women
whose cheeks and hands they press
into mine. Sometimes they restart my breathing
with their sounds. I may love black women most
because, in our captivity, we hold each other.
Koko liked to chew on the fists of her plastic
babies, then lift one to her breast to suck.
Had she been anywhere else—perhaps eating wild celery
in Angola—she would have been dead years before.
To be confined on one continent is to be hunted
on another. This is why Facebook tells me
I can’t leave: think of the amniotic coffin of the Aegean;
think of sterilized Ethiopians in Israel.
Quiet as it’s kept, had Koko not almost
died and been rescued from a zoo
overstocked with silverbacks and their harvested semen,
she might have been Harambe’s grieving mother,
but chance and the votes of white women rule us all.
This is, of course, America, its reddest records
written in the name of their preservation.
Koko’s favorite signs were Koko love and Koko good.
Even her toys could make the plea for water perfectly.
She knew who didn’t have the luxury of making mistakes.
Author’s Note: According to exit polls, approximately 94 percent of African American women voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, while 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump. And, although initial estimates were grossly exaggerated, some voters cast write-in ballots for Harambe, a silverback gorilla killed in May 2016 after a boy fell into his habitat at the Cincinnati Zoo. This poem also references Hanabiko, or “Koko,” a western lowland gorilla who was taught sign language and eventually adopted by Penny Patterson, who met Koko when a doctoral student working at the San Francisco Zoo. Some images from this poem are adapted from the 1999 PBS documentary A Conversation with Koko.
Destiny O. Birdsong is a Louisiana-born poet, fiction writer, and essayist. Her debut poetry collection, Negotiations, was published by Tin House Books in October 2020, and her debut novel is forthcoming from Grand Central in 2022. She earned both her MFA and PhD from Vanderbilt University, and now lives and works in Nashville.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Congratulations to Adebe DeRango-Adem & Simone Person!
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven reminds us of the radical power of collective imagination.
The release of a restored Basic Instinct alongside director Paul Verhoeven’s newest erotic epic, Benedetta, offers an occasion to think not only about the ethics and politics of watching bodies on screen, but about the uncanny relationship between film and reality.