Elizabeth Kerlikowske ~ Six Wild Man Poems

Private Zoo

The keep­ers and a giraffe have the only keys. No one much comes any­more. Just the Wild Man’s oth­er old friend, the camel. The pub­lic doesn’t even know it’s open.  The grass in back is so tall that your knees get wet if you walk out there in the morn­ing. The wind is in charge of the front yard. The keep­ers do not love this exhib­it. No one is inter­est­ed in the Wild Man any­more except the bed­bugs. He believes he can train them like fleas from the cir­cus that was Viet Nam.  He doesn’t shed his skin neat­ly like a snake; it falls on table, chairs, and his mother’s old teapots. The camel hooked up a tv for him. The giraffe brings cof­fee and gets him high. The keep­ers feed him bologna, peanut but­ter, and pota­to chips. On week­ends, they leave ice cream at the back door, ring the bell and run away,  so they don’t have to con­front what they have allowed to happen.


Travelling Zoo

The zookeep­ers are hav­ing the cage cleaned. They do not know what to do with the Wild Man. They take him to a cheap motel and leave him alone in room 105. The door is bare­ly closed. Already the Wild Man doesn’t remem­ber where he is or why. He phones the camel and giraffe with their forty-year-old num­bers.  The giraffe answers. The Wild Man is meek with con­fu­sion. He doesn’t think he has a car there.  The giraffe tells him to get paper and pen. She tells him to write this down: I am in this motel because my cage is being cleaned. She tells him to keep the note in his hand and read it when he is con­fused. She hears a knock at his door.  He says into the phone It’s a mess. Not your mess. My mess. I’m sor­ry. He leaves her dangling.



Chickens live next door to the Wild Man. They col­lect antiques and raise chicks.  The chick­ens don’t know what to do when they see the Wild Man locked out of his cage. He isn’t free. It is even worse with no walls. He crouch­es on his steps cry­ing giant wild sobs.  The lay­ing hen scut­tles up to him and asks, “Is there any­thing I can do?”  The Wild Man holds out his arm with the giraffe’s phone num­ber tat­tooed on it. The chick­ens have the old kind of phone where they stomp on each but­ton with their feet. After sev­er­al wrong num­bers, the chick­en reach­es the giraffe, who has the only rene­gade key. The chicks have nev­er seen the Wild Man up close. He lets them play in his hair and beard. One of them draws a Christmas tree on an old piece of card­board for his cage. One of them thinks he is Santa Claus. After the giraffe and the lay­ing hen get him back in his cage, the hen flies to the roof where she and the giraffe com­mis­er­ate about the inad­e­qua­cies of the health care system.



The giraffe is the Wild Man’s mem­o­ry. When he is dis­traught, she recounts his life: how he was a musi­cian, then sud­den­ly a sol­dier, then a wood­work­er. She reminds him of the loves of his life, leav­ing her­self out because it’s already too com­pli­cat­ed. When he begins to add details or cor­rect her, she knows he’s back. The giraffe has mem­o­rized all the Wild Man’s num­bers, sorts his pills, knows the day his garbage will be picked up. Somedays, she feels like an elephant—even after he is gone, she will nev­er forget.


The Fun House

After the Wild Man’s moth­er shrank and began falling, he moved into her base­ment.  When she died, he moved upstairs and com­plete­ly for­got about the nouns of his life down­stairs. He closed his shop. He closed off his mother’s bed­room. He has closed his bed­room. All the shades and drapes are drawn. He sleeps in a chair in front of the tele­vi­sion, shuf­fles to the kitchen, the bath­room. The ceil­ing low­ers. The walls close in. Soon the keep­ers will move him to a cof­fee cup.  Then a thimble.


New Year’s Wish

The giraffe was not always a giraffe. Once she was a dancer and could hook her foot around her neck, like a flamin­go. Men found this flex­i­bil­i­ty enchant­i­ng, but it drove the Wild Man crazy.  He was not called that then. For two years he lav­ished her body with tricks learned in Viet Nam from his girl­friends, what the pros­ti­tutes called them­selves. He con­sumed her as if she were a gin­ger­bread girl and he need­ed molasses to sur­vive. They stayed friends as they aged. He remained sin­gle and grew wilder. She became domes­ti­cat­ed and mar­ried a pan­da. The giraffe used to want to die in the Wild Man’s arms. Now she just wants him to die.


Elizabeth Kerlikowske’s most recent book is The Vaudeville Horse (Etchings Press, 2022). She wrote the text for Art Speaks: Paintings and Poetry (Kazoo Books, 2018) with painter Mary Hatch, an ekphras­tic adven­ture.  Other books by Kerlikowske include The Shape of Dad (a mem­oir in prose poems), Dominant Hand, Last Hula (win­ner of the 2013 Standing Rock Chapbook Competition), Chain of Lakes, Her Bodies, Postcards, Before the Rain (a children’s book of sto­ries and poems), and Suicide Notes. Her work is anthol­o­gized in Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence (White Pine Press, 2016), The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women (Shade Mountain Press, 2015), She also cre­ates visu­al art. Kerlikowske holds doc­tor­ate in English from Western Michigan University. An arts activist, she  served for many years as the pres­i­dent of the Kalamazoo Friends of Poetry and as pres­i­dent of the Poetry Society of Michigan.