“The Big Cats” is an ongoing poetry cycle written and read by Val Vinokur, and published weekly at Public Seminar. For more, read Part II, Part IIIPart IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX, and Part X.


One of the tigers was eating my mother. He bit her arm off and started chewing on it. “What kind of story would you like to hear? I know a good story about a rabbit.”
“I don’t want to hear a story,” I said.
“OK,” the tiger said, and he took a bite out of my father…
“Those were my folks,” I said, finally.
“We’re sorry,” one of the tigers said. “We wouldn’t do this if we didn’t have to, if we weren’t absolutely forced to. But this is the only way we can keep alive.”
“We’re just like you,” the other tiger said. “We speak the same language you do. We think the same thoughts, but we’re tigers.”
“You could help me with my arithmetic,” I said.

— Richard Brautigan, In Watermelon Sugar

“The panther was all right.”

— Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist”


In the Bronx the tigers have come down
with a dry cough and febrile dreams, not
metaphors but also metaphors: If at first you
don’t succeed: frame thy fearful symmetry,
Tyger Tyger, forced to burn in solidarity.

Jackals in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Whales
in Marseilles. Mountain goats descend to breathe
the rich air of the streets of Wales. Pandas drunk
on privacy copulate in the Hong Kong Zoo.
Nature adores a vacuum. All of us locked
inside with our vacuums, stewing in our dirty
juices, cleaning, sweeping, washing our hands
raw, as if taken by a virus, metaphor to the crown
that anoints the black necrotic lung, the buzzing
in the skin, storm in the blood, shiver in the heart.

Nature has returned from exile. Now we are
refugees again, this time from the civil refuge
of our stupid lives, masqued against the red
death, shouting at each other six feet sideways
across the length of a cadaver.

Homo homini lupus. Born of wolves and so
the tigers ate our parents and helped us
with our math: exponents and rates of attack and
dread parabolas of our demise. When he was six,
Richard Brautigan’s real mother left him
and his two-year-old sister by themselves in a motel room
for two days. His father claimed he did not know
he had a son. Raised by tigers like the rest. “Messy,
isn’t it?” is what Richard wrote on his suicide note,
unless he didn’t. The tigers taught him how
to twist the sinews of the heart and keep the fur tidy
and arithmetically clean, avoiding all the unhappiness
of man by staying alone in his own room.

Val Vinokur teaches literature and translation at The New School and is the founding editor of Poets & Traitors Press.