Koko, whose name meant “firecracker child,”

and whom her handler, Penny, called self-absorbed,

would position a toy gorilla’s hands with her teeth

to sign “drink.” We are most ourselves

in the water, says my swim coach. We only struggle

to breathe when we remember it can drown us.

If we can forget, we can move forward.

A man I’d like to love tells me this

about our country when the election results come in,

and all of our imaginary children disappear.

My fingers are smaller than Koko’s, but still,

I’m bad at touch screens. I check the ballot

twice before pressing Vote. I don’t want

to do it wrong. And call me judgmental for hating

every hand who wrote in the name

of a beast. To them, I am living,

but my survival isn’t worth nearly as much effort.

Yet, we all take the sticker; we all

brag of our civic duty, gliding home

on a wave of solidarity that feels

like kinship, which is what one Twitter troll

quipped about Isaiah, the black boy who fell

into Harambe’s confused hands: Just going

to see his cousins anyway—what’s

the fuss? We’re dragging each other

through the moat, the space separating

human from feral. Koko never had

babies because she never had a coven,

no sister-mothers to help her groom or forage

for food, save Penny, who taught her her first betrayals:

the signs for “eat” and “browse”: the lettuce on which

she was chewing when she picked out a mate

she would never feel comfortable enough to let

touch her—not tenderly, not savagely, not the way

the Great Apes mate, which I do not know

because, contrary to popular opinion,

I am not one. There are many women

whose cheeks and hands they press

into mine. Sometimes they restart my breathing

with their sounds. I may love black women most

because, in our captivity, we hold each other.

Koko liked to chew on the fists of her plastic

babies, then lift one to her breast to suck.

Had she been anywhere else—perhaps eating wild celery

in Angola—she would have been dead years before.

To be confined on one continent is to be hunted

on another. This is why Facebook tells me

I can’t leave: think of the amniotic coffin of the Aegean;

think of sterilized Ethiopians in Israel.

Quiet as it’s kept, had Koko not almost

died and been rescued from a zoo

overstocked with silverbacks and their harvested semen,

she might have been Harambe’s grieving mother,

but chance and the votes of white women rule us all.

This is, of course, America, its reddest records

written in the name of their preservation.

Koko’s favorite signs were Koko love and Koko good.

Even her toys could make the plea for water perfectly.

She knew who didn’t have the luxury of making mistakes.


Author’s Note: According to exit polls, approximately 94 percent of African American women voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, while 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump. And, although initial estimates were grossly exaggerated, some voters cast write-in ballots for Harambe, a silverback gorilla killed in May 2016 after a boy fell into his habitat at the Cincinnati Zoo. This poem also references Hanabiko, or “Koko,” a western lowland gorilla who was taught sign language and eventually adopted by Penny Patterson, who met Koko when a doctoral student working at the San Francisco Zoo. Some images from this poem are adapted from the 1999 PBS documentary A Conversation with Koko.