Over the next two days, the Home Forum will introduce ``Roots of Poems,'' a continuing series in which poets offer comments on the origin of one of their poems. The objective is to enhance the poetry experience for the reader. Fantasia Yes, the Greeks shot Pegasus high, Mother Goose lofted a moonstruck cow, and even Marc Chagall floated goats, chickens, other farmyard beasts.
But the zoo has flown two Asian rhinos to America, chewing hay in the sky, not quite constellations (rhino major), the great engines muscling them along,
bridging the drifted continents, to where fossil rhinos once lipped fossil grass. They are unknowing, quite serene, small ears wagged at nonexistent flies,
borne beyond rhino destiny, single horns blunt, glowing, themselves things of imagination, ready for anything.
I have always admired the rhinoceros. Even its name seems prehistoric, and the animals themselves, in all their varieties, seem like grazing tanks, self-sufficient examples of muscular beastiness sporting those bizarre central horns (which, biologists assure us, are made of enlarged hair).
Last spring my wife and I went to a special evening for Friends of the San Francisco Zoo. We were invited behind the scenes, and there got to feed a pair of black rhinos, who reached their soft, pointy, almost prehensile lips through the bars and took carrots from our hands. We were charmed. We weren't looking across a moat. I finally realized their shyness, their eager hesitancy. I got a real whiff of homely rhino-ness - bulk, horns, wagging ears, and dancing shuffle.
When I heard shortly afterward that the zoo had acquired a pair of Asian rhinos, and that they would be flown in, the task of moving those hulking hustlers in an aircraft seemed astonishing.
At that point it struck me how often human imagination has put big beasts in the sky, from the ancient constellations, like Taurus, to the Saturday morning TV cartoons. Suddenly the whole event had acquired mythological proportions. But the difference is that these rhinos would really be up there, no doubt taking it all in their matter-of-fact way.
The Americas once had a full complement of rhinos, as fossils tell us. They were free to walk back and forth to Africa and Asia before the continents drifted apart. And yet they now could make a return journey in a day or two. All of this seemed wholly remarkable and deserving a poem in its praise.
After all, to fly rhinos is in itself a poetic act. It is done for their preservation and our knowledge and delight, not for commerce.
For me, the poem came alive in the interplay of the real and the imaginative, my admiration commemorating that large sense of wonder which initiated acts erasing the weight of time and place. Once these limits held our human realities more tightly, though never our vision.