Al Ortolani, “Animals We Kept”

Al Ortolani

Nonna kept parakeets. She slipped
thimbles of beer into their water, and they
spoke Italian to her. Cages
hung across the porch on metal hooks
until birds swayed in the wind like lamps.
One Friday, my brother
bulldozed a tree next to Mango’s Market.
A nest of squirrels flipped from the branches.
Mother raised the babies in a box
that smelled of peaches. Two died
the first night. Two nursed,
sucking on a scrap of cloth soaked in sugar-milk.

One grew to live in the house,
climbing into Mother’s blankets,
burrowing as if to heartwood.
The dog belonged to me.
The old man said the Mutt was a turd eater.
I found him tied to a mail box next to the YMCA.
He ran off once after a garbage truck,
and I chased him
until the streets turned dim
and the faces on the porches grew curious
about the lost boy with the lost dog.
I curled up next to Familia’s Boxing Club,
my hand twisted in the dog’s collar.

Some nights, the old man
would hike with Uncle Sal to the city dump
to hunt rats with the twelve gauge,
bagging a bottle of wine, maybe some bread.
I’d wake when they stumbled through the door,
smelled their clothes thick with wine and trash smoke,
dragging their heavy boots
across the porch, batting
the cages like speed bags, cursing
the squirrels, my dog, the rats
as big as a dog, the rats
as big as a boy.

Author’s Comment: The poem “Animals We Kept” has taken many forms. It’s based on a number of stories which my father used to tell about the Depression. Dad’s stories were usually humorous. But I decided to add an edge to the poem. One with a touch of sadness and misplaced anger. My grandmother, on the other hand, did keep squirrels and parakeets. As a child, I remember her showing me a “flying squirrel” which slept in her bed at nights. I thought it interesting that a family which had to struggle to keep food on the table could find it in their hearts to raise birds, keep squirrels, and bring home strays.

One thought on “Al Ortolani, “Animals We Kept”

  1. This poem touches me. I had brothers who raised wild animals and birds. They had a crow, squirrels and often raccoons and other such but all were set free except the crow. I was small. I fed the crow some crawfish and he died.

    The poem draws me in with the little boy losing his dog. He is a kind hearted child, but the father seems angry and mean-spirited, such a contrast with the child.

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