Henri Rousseau Explains

Sundays, after dinner–comprenez–
I take little Henri with me and go
to the Jardin des Plantes. We prefer
the lion house. Peaceful and hot.
I sit on a bench to observe–
the lions, yes. Also ladies with parasols,
children dashing from cage to cage,
men stuffed into their best waistcoats.
I may smoke a pipe or two…

Was it in March? Yes, last March
I observe a new fellow sweeping
sawdust between the cages.
Young–dark-skinned–graceful,
his long smock flows back and forth
as he works. They have two lions now
and three lionesses. Understand–
I know them like friends. Like family.
The biggest, Bernard, is Henri’s favorite.
Really a fine specimen– everyone says so.

Yes. The keeper’s trailing smock—
the lion’s yellow stare—the stately
arc of his tail–the heat—the jungle reek…
Little Henri runs his fingers along the iron bars,
“Papa,” he says, “when will we go to Africa?”
Well, what could I tell him? Imaginez-vous!
My long days at the Customs House
—the clatter of the franking machine—
the clerk at the next desk with his perpetual
hacking cough… Impossible! Not to mention
Marthe with her migraines…we might
just manage a week in Normandy this year.
No sea voyages for us.
The Jardin will have to suffice.
“Maybe next year,“  I tell the boy.

Home then on the tram, with the other
Sunday families, swaying and bumping.
Smells of wet wool and stale beer.
Henri nods off, his head against my arm.
How to explain it? In the rain-dark window
I see the keeper’s image change, transform–
into an African—a Bedouin woman
asleep in the Sahara. That blue smock
now a striped robe, spread out on sand.
Her water-jug beside her. Her mandolin.

The pale moon hovers above her, and watching

over her sleep, fierce as an angel, The Lion.