~This poem first appeared in Prairie Schooner (2009).
The bear marauds inside my garden,
plants his tracks among the roses;
his scent lingers in hollies, yews.
I gather broken branches in
my arms, pocking hands and face
with prickled leaves. Back inside
the house, my cats do not accept
the tang of bear upon my skin.
They press their noses to the window,
seeking solace in the glass —
clear-eyed frame that holds us back,
bladed pane that keeps us safe.
The bear says, “I’m not dangerous!
Let me make a den for you —
I will hang the walls with shells,
drape soft moss across your bed.
Songs drawn from water will sweeten
the air. Sometimes I’ll kiss your full,
pleading lips, although they’re not
the type to which I’m accustomed.”
I tell the bear: “My prince will come
find me.” Clear, uninflected. The bear
just laughs. “Does his skin smell
of musk, does his flesh taste
of honey? Does his fur warm you
in winter? Does he know to stroke
your cheek with all his claws drawn in?”
When he holds me in his arms,
I hear roaring in my ear.
The bear says, “Look closely: there’s
a ring set in my nose.” And though
I’ve stroked his snout a thousand times,
I’ve never — until now — felt iron
beneath my fingers. Says the bear,
“Once I begged for my living, I
recited rhymes, my paw outstretched.
The ring came later, screwed it in
myself, thought I’d live better with
a chain, four walls to steady me.”
The bear shambles through crowds, snout
turning side to side, eyes
always seeking, I don’t know
what he’s seeking…. He seems to prefer
that I fall two steps back, that way
no one shouts, “Look! A woman’s
chained to that bear!” Although the chain’s
invisible. Although at night,
when he leads me out, no one
sees he’s a bear.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEM
As a child I devoured fairy tales: I particularly liked tales about shape-shifters and also tales about enchanted bears, such as “Snow White and Rose Red.” Later, I lived a number of years in what is now Russia and there encountered many bears – real and imagined – as well as their human confrères. On my desk stands a small bear carved by a person suffering from mental illness in Moscow in the early 1990s (one could argue that everyone living there suffered from mental illness during those years): the bear rears, extending his front paws, palms up, in what appears to be a gesture of supplication. Of course, not all bears are enchanted princes – as this poem demonstrates.
ABOUT KATHERINE E. YOUNG
Katherine E. Young is the author of Day of the Border Guards (University of Arkansas Press); individual poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Subtropics, The Massachusetts Review, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and many others. Young is also the translator of Poems by Inna Kabysh, a dual-language iPad edition that includes text, audio, and video (Artist’s Proof Editions). Young’s translation of Kabysh’s work won a share of the 2011 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender Prize. http://katherine-young-poet.com/