Richly Robed Rhinoceroses
Riding in Rickety Red Rickshaws
—Graeme Base, Animalia
My mother had brothers murdered in Appalachia.
Men that other men knew they had to shoot or fight
all night long. I couldn’t keep straight who shot who.
My mother told me, more than once, to get it right.
And so I made a note of the names. I carry it now.
In my wallet behind a picture from another funeral.
My note reads: Ed Potter / Junior Tucker. Below,
in black, Earl Potter / Johnny Belcher. Under that,
the words dishonorable discharge since Earl Potter
was court-martialed and, sometime later, discharged
for wounding a US Army major in India in a bar fight.
The summer night he was shot, Earl dragged himself
to Fleming Hospital where he died the next morning.
An eagle tattooed on his chest, its wings stretched
from nipple to nipple: one detail I could never
shake. Nor: Go tell Mary—which my mother
has acknowledged as that brother’s last words.
It’s like this: I keep them from grandchildren.
The stories. Until they appreciate the animal
that wells up inside someone. And spills out
like the caricatured rhinoceroses in their book—
one rhinoceros in a bloodshot rickshaw is itself
arterial-red, and I see bleeding Earl slowed with
a hand as he walked himself to something like help.
I turn pages: ingenious iguanas improvise an intricate
impromptu on impossibly impractical instruments…
And then: horrible hairy hogs hurrying homeward
on heavily harnessed horses. No coal smoke wafts,
no death anywhere. Just brightly colored animalia
purposed to distract from the Terrible in exchange
for a Creation minus pissed-off men dying young
and far too soon to read aloud to their offspring.
Roy Bentley, a finalist for the Miller Williams poetry prize for Walking with Eve in the Loved City, is the author of eight books, including American Loneliness from Lost Horse Press. He is the recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the Ohio Arts Council. Poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Guernica, New Letters, Crazyhorse, Shenandoah, Blackbird, Prairie Schooner, and Rattle, among others. Lost Horse Press will release his New & Selected in 2021.