When a zoo was built in old Saigon
French colonials sought it out for fun;
white suits, hemp hats for gentlemen
and ladies with parasols and pastel chemise.
They stopped at the pineapple seller, the coconut juice vendor
to suck a straw at a seat out of the tropical sun
and giggled as the children with their insouciant mamas
held sticks of sugar-cane across ditches of dung
to tease the elephants until their trunks danced and sung
Then strolled down the pavements
to view the panther walking on his toes
fresh from the jungle of Waq Waq
black as eden in its dark fall.
Sleek, muscular and virile,
liable to flash his devil eyes
or spray his cologne scent to mark his place;
or lift himself for mating through the fence.
Oh the thrill, the tingle through the bones
and the delicious rude language to torment
the wild animal safely captured, his razor claws
behind the iron bars and concrete cave
that enclosed the beast without distracting the pleasure.
But he was ready to revolt, take back the jungle in a leap,
and watched for signs of the regime’s retreat.
That was before the war, the cause of the war.
Now the visitors still take Sundays in Ho Chi Minh City
to escape the heat and motorbike noise
around the Hotel Continental and Pham Ngu Lau,
beat from Banh Tanh markets and the noxious crossways
to the old zoo where they relax in the shadows
of Alacasia odora, lush survivor from the napalm years;
where vanilla orchids perfume the air
and durian hang in domes above cracked stairs
that lead to the same panther’s lair.
And who knows how the panther’s voice should sound
who stalked through empires and revolutions
and still waits for liberation, some rights or compassion.
The Sunday hunters capture panther over and over,
click and delete, zoom to the foreground:
a decoy girlfriend on the rusted fence;
her lips bait the animal for a taste of fresh.
But panther has lost the urge to hunt.
Under the black skin its muscles sag in pouches;
the cartilage is hardened sorrow, dried instincts;
Insane from ennui he shuffles on stumps without claws;
the yellow eyes mourn like sunsets over Xom Lang.
The panther coughs as if about to speak,
then gives up or forgets.
He gazes moodily upon the visitors,
pads back and forth without purpose;
he does not know of death.
The panther scratches at fleas and waits for popcorn,
crunches through his bitterness.