The world is large and full of ice;
it is hard to amaze. Its attention
may take the form of sea leopards.
That much any penguin knows
that staggers onto Cape Royds in the spring.
They bark, they bow one to another,
she swans forward, he walks on her back,
they get on with it. Later
he assumes his post, an egg between his ankles.
Explorers want to see everything, even
the faces of penguins whose eggs have been stolen
for science. At night they close the tent flaps
to fabricate sundown, hunch together
over penguin fried in butter, and write up their notes.
Mornings they clump over shit-stained rocks,
tuck eggs in their mittens, and shout.
Got one, got one. They shove back their balaclavas;
they feel warm all over.
The penguins scurry for something to mother,
anyone’s egg will do, any egg
no matter how stiff and useless the contents,
even an egg-shaped stone to warm—
and one observer slips to a widow
a red tin that once held cheese.
Finally the wooden ship sails, full of salted penguin,
dozens of notebooks, embryos,
explorers who missed as little as possible. But:
The penguin cherished the red tin on her feet.
She knew what was meant to happen next
and she wanted it, with a pure desire
refined for thirty-five million years
in the dark eye of every progenitive cell.
And it happened. A red tin beak broke through
and a baby flopped into the rock nest, smelling of cheese—
but soon he was covered with guano, so that was all right.
Begging for krill from his aunts’ throats just like the others.
Winter: blue ice, green ice, black sea,
hot breath of yellow-jawed killer whales.
Summer: pink slime on black rock,
skuas that aim for the eye. Krill, krill,
a shivering molt, krill, krill, a mate,
and so on. And though he craved dairy products
he never found any; though he was miraculous
no one came to say so. The world is large,
and without a fuss has absorbed stranger things than this.
“Cheese Penguin” is from Primate Behavior (Grove Press, 1997).