Elegy for the Quagga
by Sarah Lindsay
Krakatau split with a blinding noise
and raised from gutted, steaming rock
a pulverized black sky, over water walls
that swiftly fell on Java and Sumatra.
Fifteen days before, in its cage in Amsterdam,
the last known member of Equus quagga,
the southernmost subspecies of zebra, died.
Most of the wild ones, not wild enough,
grazing near the Cape of Good Hope,
had been shot and skinned and roasted by white hunters.
When a spider walked on cooling Krakatau’s skin,
no quagga walked anywhere. While seeds
pitched by long winds onto newborn fields
burst open and rooted, perhaps some thistle
flourished on the quagga’s discarded innards.
The fractured island greened and hummed again;
handsome zebras tossed their heads
in zoos, on hired safari plains.
Who needs to hear a quagga’s voice?
Or see the warm hide twitch away a fly,
see the neck turn, curving its cream and chestnut stripes
that run down to plain dark haunches and plain white legs?
A kind of horse. Less picturesque than a dodo. Still,
we mourn what we mourn.
Even if, when it sank to its irreplaceable knees,
when its unique throat closed behind a sigh,
no dust rose to redden a whole year’s sunsets,
no one unwittingly busy
two thousand miles away jumped at the sound,
no ashes rained on ships in the merciless sea.
SOURCE: Poetry (October 2008)
IMAGE: “The Quagga” (1804) by Samuel Daniell from the series African Scenery and Animals. (Smithsonian Institution Libraries)
NOTE: “Elegy for the Quagga” addresses two events from 1883 — the death on August 12 of the last quagga in a zoo in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa (Krakatau) in Indonesia on August 26. Like other animal species that disappeared in Africa during the 19th century, the quagga was hunted to extinction. Since 1987, a breeding project has been under way in South Africa to produce an animal with the physical characteristics of the quagga, particularly its yellowish-brown color and the unusual striping pattern.This is possible because of DNA testing, which showed that the quagga was not a distinct zebra species as once believed, but one of several subspecies of Plains zebra. Through selective breeding of these close relatives, the project has succeeded in producing animals that closely resemble the original quagga. For more information and to find out how you can help, visit quaggaproject.org.
ABOUT KRAKATOA: The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa began on the afternoon of Sunday, August 26, 1883 and peaked on the late morning of Monday, August 27, 1883, when over 70% of the island of Krakatoa, Indonesia, and its surrounding archipelago were destroyed as it collapsed into a caldera. The eruption was one of the deadliest and most destructive volcanic events in recorded history and explosions were so violent that they were heard 3,000 miles away. At least 36,417 deaths are attributed to the eruption and the tsunamis it created. The explosion is believed to be a source of inspiration for Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream. The reddish sky in the background is the artist’s memory of the effects of the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa, which tinted skies red in parts of the Western hemisphere for months during 1883 and 1884.
IMAGE: Published as Plate 1 in The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena. Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society (London, Trubner & Co., 1888).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sarah Lindsay was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and earned a BA from St. Olaf College and an MFA from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. She is the author of the full-length poetry collections Primate Behavior (Grove Press, 1997), a finalist for the National Book Award, Mount Clutter (Grove Press, 2002), Twigs and Knucklebones (Copper Canyon Press, 2008), and Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower (Copper Canyon Press, 2013). Lindsay’s work is known for its lyricism and inclusion of scientific facts, theories, and methods. Her honors and awards include a Pushcart Prize, the Carolyn Kizer Prize, and J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize as well as a Lannan Literary Fellowship.