Colin Cheney


Naked, the Emperor gazes up at the giraffe
               wavering on crane-legs after


               days in the dark, waiting.

The people, witness, have never seen


               such a creature, they know
               what is to come.


Five-score lions Commodus disemboweled

               in one day, they starved


               and fury in chains—the music

of their dying confused with the calliope crowd


               gut sick and thrilled.

               And, once, the son of Aurelius


ran laps around the arena, the fiddlehead
               neck of the just-slaughtered


               ostrich brandished
before the crowd, a child’s toy. But they haven’t


               seen a giraffe before—somehow

               kept alive ‘cross sea,


fed leaves and fruit, battered against the almost
               ark’s ribs. And, soon,


               the beautiful king will spear

the towering belly, organs


               rushing to empty to the sand.

               Or, maybe, he’ll begin by hacking


one long leg, the giraffe screaming, bucking

               as it falls, his neck


               making a slow, sick curve,

               the braincase shattering


on the sand. Or maybe
               a man in the crowd will decide


               he’s seen enough
even before the killing has begun, and walk out


               into the alleys of Rome

               where someone scrubs the steps


of a house not her own. Commodus, of course,

               tired of slaughtering


               these innocents out of Africa

starved for his delight. Sometimes he had the city scoured


               for men without feet—lepers,

               a boy whose leg has been crushed


by a wagon, veterans’ of the Danube

               campaigns—and like kindling


               bound them to each other

so he could hack them apart with his father’s


               sword. The soul is a vortex,
               Aurelius wrote, and the entire body


prone to decay. All things of the body are as a river

               and the things of


               the soul as a dream.

What was it dad said, the king wonders,


               scratching his balls, watching

               the giraffe’s body waver


against the sky, about how we should welcome death,

               about the end of desire


               and its emptiness? (Of course,

I only told you that story so I could tell you this one—


“Desire” first appeared in AGNI 80 (2014).