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The Day They Shot a Wolf in the Ghetto and What It Meant

I say I saw her end, but I didn’t.
And how she began, nobody knows. In prison

is what the paper pretends: in a pen,
in a lab, with the gate half open,

and the wolf lunging out to get free.
As if that wasn’t just the lead tot heir story

but the start of her life. Which then took off
in a streak of gray across dark green lawns

— its ears pressed flat, its legs going hard–
so the students, walking, their books in their arms

saw something they didn’t understand sprint (fast)
across what they did. Before they could ask

what it meant, she was gone. Like a dream
disappears at the edge of meaning and means

something else on the other side. Except,
of course, she wasn’t a dream. As soon as she leapt

away from the curb,
she became what the drivers swerved

around: the kind of soft mistake that wakes the kids
or ruins the job or the marriage. The drivers did

what they always did: they leaned on their horns and kept
on going. Shaking, now, and wet

with panic, the wolf dove (blind)
into narrow darkness and ran for a long time

from alley to alley.
Parts of the world are like the veins in an arm: hit one deeply

enough, and it’s a disappearance.
The wolf submerged into pure silence,

till she came up, across town, in a garden.
Chlorine pools. Plastic fish. Iron
deer at absurd attention. A landscape chose
to look like nature but safer than that: frozen

solid. Green light slanting through planted trees.
She must have stopped there and sampled the breeze,

maybe licked at the blood between the cracks
in her paws, fooled into thinking she could stop and relax

by blending, like everything else, into richness.
But the paper, later, quoted a witness:

“I thought,” said the woman, “she looked kind of funny.
Panting like that. And without anybody.

So when she didn’t move, I called the cops.”
They spotted her there like you’d spot

an idea in the midst of a conversation.
And after that, came the wail of sirens

streaking across suburban blocks– smearing the sense
and symmetry– till she hit the link fence
by the railroad tracks. Where (foam streaking her back)
she crossed over. The winos, the women at the laundromat,

barely noticed her passing. “Take
one to know one,” they kidded later. Like the mistake

of the rookie cop when he asked
if they’d seen something dark and scared run past,

and everyone pointed in different directions
— towards the sewer, the projects, up into heaven–

till the cop had to drive away. They caught her, finally,
when the neighborhood dogs started whining

at the smell of fear in the air.
The cops simply cut off their sirens and stared,

and the howls of the dogs rose like a map
superimposed on the back

of the city. If the wolf has to be a symbol
of something, then the symbol now trembled
in knee-high grass. A vet in a pure white van pulled over:
in his trunk, a collection of tranquilizers–

on his hands, a pair of surgical gloves–
as if we became what we touched.

“We had her,” the officer said, “in a corner
and were attempting to take her alive, as ordered,

when she charged. And two of my men dispatched her
before she could do any harm. Their reaction,”

he added, “was totally normal.”
The paper, later, came up with a moral

by quoting the Dean of Science.
“We are saddened,” he said, “by the use of violence

and the subsequent loss of learning.”
But that wasn’t learning I saw in the grass, turning

over and over itself till it died.
Her body was carted back to the lab, untied

on a table for the students to study, and then
what was left of the wolf was abandoned.

Which is yet another end to the story.
Except, of course, there was still the body

and the meaning of that depended, again,
on how it looked (all cut into parts) and when

and where it was (on the floor). The way
I see it, in a single movement, they

dropped the wolf down a chute to the basement
where, in a plastic bag, she escaped.

Daniel Wolff is a poet and author of the excellent biography of the great Sam Cooke, You Send Me, as well as the recent collection of Ernest Withers’ photographs The Memphis Blues Again. This poem originally appeared in the Spring 1990 edition of Three Penny Review.

He can be reached at: ziwolff@optonline.net

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