Week 156: The Bereavement of the Lion-Keeper, by Sheenah Pugh

One of the things I like about Sheenah Pugh’s poems is the unexpectedness of their subject matter. I enjoy the usual domestic themes as much as anyone, but it is equally a delight to come across a poem about, say, Roerek the Blinded, ‘king and cosmic nuisance’, or a road with a mind of its own, its tarry skin ‘like a long supple bolt of cloth’, or, in the case of my choice this week, a keeper of lions. And I particularly admire the way this poem unites the political with the personal: yes, it is about the problems of living in a war-torn country, but it also poses a question that anyone may have to answer: what do you do when a role that you have given your life to ceases to exist for you? Think, for example, parents whose children have emigrated, runners whom renown has outrun, Larkin in his last years, the poetry gone….

The Bereavement of the Lion-Keeper
(for Sheraq Omar)

Who stayed, long after his pay stopped,
in the zoo with no visitors,
just keepers and captives, moth-eaten,
growing old together.

Who begged for meat in the market-place
as times grew hungrier,
and cut it up small to feed him,
since his teeth were gone.

Who could stroke his head, who knew
how it felt to plunge fingers,
into rough glowing fur, who has heard
the deepest purr in the world.

Who curled close to him, wrapped in his warmth,
his pungent scent, as the bombs fell,
who has seen him asleep so often,
but never like this.

Who knew that elderly lions
were not immortal, that it was bound
to happen, that he died peacefully,
in the course of nature.

but who knows no way to let go
of love, to walk out of sunlight,
to be an old man in a city,
without a lion.

Sheenagh Pugh