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The Tamer - a poem

When I was a cub you reared me by hand

Teaching me to feel no pain,

So that when you whipped me, I would forget.

Parading in your top hat, all the bravado of the big top

Went to your head. You strutted your savage pets

Around the ring, and wept at their obedience.

Alone, behind the tent with only the bars of the cage as friends.

When my paws became too big to slip between them,

Then you began in earnest to cripple me.

Lessons learned in chains, are lessons never loved.

As I grew strong, you leaned into me with your stick and hook,

Each stripe another cause for fury and for hate.

I found by looking, I could never find

Anything but cruelty in your eyes, the urge to wound.

I never once thought to crush you in my giant jaws.

Though you trained me for the circus crowds,

To sit pert, jump fiery hoops, roar on call,

My nerves were frayed from all the promised deaths you hid.

Each one a sad demise, a murder unrevealed.

First my love, then trust, then hope, til naught was left

But the gentle, heavy pelt even you could not flay.

For nights in years, I crept up to your coaxing call,

My great lowered head longing to be gently held,

Never knowing what it could be to seek revenge.

Not thinking that one reach of my heavy claws

Would send your feeble frame across the stage

And crush your sneer into the limp and lifeless dust.

Instead your feathered training pole prised my jaw.

Pushed up my chin and forced a roar,

Though never in defiance, just in pain.

For years, we fought out there you and I.

Among the coloured ribands and the clowns,

Where horses, acrobats and children’s laughter merged.

Until the day you died, friendless without the cheers and cries.

And I awoke, as if from sleep to find my strength like Samson’s gone,

Your final act to leave me toothless, numb.

Lying there, I saw my cage ajar and took my chance

Balanced a moment, raised my head, smelled the air,

And made my way towards a half remembered jungle dream.

I passed your dead, contemptous, twisted face

And wondered for a moment how you would taste

Ripped from the sagging carcass in my teeth.

Your bullwhip frayed and lifeless too,

How I wanted to heal a thousand savage welts,

But there is no taste to death, only rank and breathless stink

Padding slowly past the caravans and painted smiles,

Looking only to the shadows that fell beyond the town,

I cleared the boundary and leapt and ran.

A strength to reach beyond myself returned

And taking years in every stride I made for the sea,

Felt strong in a place I’d never known before.

My vast power buoyant in the waves, full of joy

And when I came towards the other side, up on the shore,

‘He has returned’, the whisper grew into the air.

The people fell before me and flowers and sacrifice

Adorned the ways I walked as if they had been waiting long.

‘He has returned’, and now the times begin again.

The jungle I had dreamed, is filled with dangers I can face

Nothing moved by hapless human whim

Or candyfloss and slight awakenings.

From here no more pretty mimicry for you,

Now the pain is not for longer life unloved

But wounds and hurt and blood falls thick.

My mate marks out our territory too,

Our cubs learn hard unschooled in petty, wilful ways

And death is nothing but the power I gain in me.

I hear across the seas, no thoughts of you remain,

Except that lean, cruel whip now marks a grave

Where all men laugh and shudder at your name.

Dedicated to Frank Bostock, Abney Cemetery and all the other tamers

And to Neil Douglas who acted bravely 13th April 2023

Philip Dundas, January 2008

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