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The Lions in His Menagerie


ISSUE:  Fall 2008

“The lions in his menagerie ate parrots, and he fed his horses grapes.”
—of the emperor Elagabalus,218–222

And for his human guests, imperial excess straining
all credulity: say a nightingale embalmed in honey
and stuffed in a swan that was stuffed in a tenderized hog
that was levered into a slow-roast ox, the spaces in between
these telescoping boluses made cloggy with impactions
of lamprey, fresh sows’ udders, roosters’ jellies in pike sauce,
and a veritable scree of goose and pheasant livers
elevated by nightlong immersion in mint.
And they didn’t partake of this abstemiously—no,
it drizzled prodigiously down their chins and over
their breasts, it left them lumpishly held to their couches
as if their guts were a fatty magma set on cooling
into the heaviness of stone. Do I understand this? Maybe.
Maybe when I remember my mother refusing even a teaspoon

of the watery broth we offered her—the cancer was
so eminently painful by then, and so obviously
medically unassailable—and when I see her turning
into a project made of fluorescent light and gossamer, ready
to flimmer away on someone’s sigh or a nurse’s cough.
When I think of Phillip opening his chest and groin
like a cabinet door so we could see how his once-renowned
gourmet solidity was scarecrow straw the winds of dying
sang through, in their whiny pitch. And when the tv news is
emaciated—twiggish limbs, and faces all concavity,
and children in these camps who look as if the deathwatch flies
they bear all over them could lift them, in some show
of a ghastly synchronicity, off the earth. And then I comprehend
the urges, or anyway some of the urges, for accumulating

counterweight, despite its often fantastical tallies.
How many separate cheeses and hens compose the single
viscous river of cheeses and hens upended down the gullets
in Rabelais? How many quaffs of sack for Falstaff?
In one Irish poet’s twelfth-century lyrical whimsy, his hero
voyages over a “sweet milk sea” in a coracle “built of lard.”
“Professional eater” Takeru “The Human Tsunami” Kobayashi
wolfed his way to win the World Hamburger Eating Championship
in 2006, score: 97 downed in eight minutes. Sonya Thomas,
current reigning female champ, is 100 pounds: “I believe
I can handle up to 18 pounds of food and liquid.” So we’re back
at Elagabalus’s palace, all of those post-gluttonizing
snoozers on their silks like sacks of monumental gravity,
unbudgeable . . . just let the goons of dissolution come,

the rust, the winnowers, the strafing rain, the tumor . . .
let them try, just let them try, to pry these bodies,
these repletions, from their hold on life, or lessen
them a smidgen! And the life of the spirit?—its symbol might
sufficiently be a flame inside a tiny tinwork bird; instead,
we get a Gothic cathedral (Rouen: 495 feet high,
and Chartres: 102 of those magisterial stained-glass windows;
individual stones could reach two tons), we get the Buddha statue
as tall as some rocket gantries. Porn star Houston did
500 men in a single afternoon, for one now-legendary movie.
(Even so, that record’s been broken.) When the elector Augustus
of Saxony journeyed to Schwabach for its healing waters
in 1584, it required (evidently) a train of 225 horses
sporting matching caparisons. And yet from this same species-pool

of genes, we’ve been granted such an example as Gandhi, very
quietly but immovably saying no, and saying no, until
an empire turned away (and he ate . . . what? a couple of bananas
and a modest plate of yoghurt once a day?). Thoreau,
as spare as a slat, saying no. The no that Bartleby says
is small and simple—integrity always is.
And here: the photo of a teepee’s framework: through it we
can see the sky and an empty field: the planet saying
no to pavement-fastfoodfranchise-mallorama. Wabi
is Japanese for a kind of “beauty” in the diminutive
and the ephemeral, the thing that ego passes by.
Leonard Koren: “The closer things get to nonexistence,
the more exquisite and provocative they become.”
An inwardness. An ethereal nod. Anya Solvig left

her life in the Sisters of Saint Mary’s; and then left her life
at the Cal Tech Research Labs; and then the Buddhist Center.
What she required didn’t require an ohm or an om.
She built a room of untreated and unadorned wood, “not
even the size of some walk-in closets in Beverly Hills,”
and here she retreated, to spend her days in meditation
—fueled, the story says, by an evening serving of tea,
and a morning portion of rice, and a single daily chrysanthemum
“for loveliness and focus.” Here she retreated;
and she meditated; and day by day she flensed her self
from her bones . . . until, I imagine, she could fly
across the earth, above the room where my mother is saying
at the start of her last day here, no thank you, not
another sip, no crumb, not one more anchoring swallow.

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