Talking Pictures: Soft Animals

Poet Prartho Sereno on kindness, humanity and ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

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‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ is the story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, a Polish couple who hid Jews in their Warsaw Zoo during WWII.

By David Templeton

“The film has a very poetic heartbeat, perhaps because it’s based on a book written by a poet,” observes Prartho Sereno, sipping a cup of coffee this rainy Saturday, while discussing The Zookeeper’s Wife, a new film based on the bestselling book of the same name. “It’s funny, I know, but different poems kept coming to me, popping into my head, all the time I was watching the film.”

“Actually,” I suggest, silently acknowledging that Sereno herself is an award-winning poet, “that’s not really that surprising.”

An acclaimed teacher and author, Sereno is a regular participant in the California Poets-in-the-Schools program. She just completed a two-year term as Marin County Poet Laureate, and only just passed the honorary title to 2017-2018 Poet Laureate Rebecca Foust. Sereno’s books include Elephant Raga, winner of the 2014 Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry, plus Call From Paris, Everyday Miracles, Garden Sutra and Causing a Stir, the latter a series of poems exploring “the secret lives and loves” of kitchen utensils.

The Zookeeper’s Wife, the book, is, in fact, the work of a poet: Naturalist and author Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses, Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, One Hundred Names for Love). The book, and the movie version—directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider)—tells the true-life story of Warsaw zookeepers Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh), who risked their lives during WWII following the Nazi invasion of Poland, by using their zoo to secretly smuggle Jews from the ghetto to safety. Antonina’s profound empathy for animals and humans alike drives much of the action. And for a tale in which bombs drop from the sky and death comes suddenly, it’s amazing how quiet the whole enterprise is.

“There was this one line, from a Mary Oliver poem, that I kept thinking of during the movie,” says Sereno, searching her mind for the line, and quickly finding it. “‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,’” she recites. “‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’ That’s from Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese,’ a beautiful poem.”

Sereno says that she thinks the poem coming to mind had something to do with the deep primal innocence of animals. “That was particularly powerful in the scene where Warsaw is being bombed, and the animals in the zoo all respond to it in their own natural way,” she says.

“That was terrifying,” I agree. “There’s something about seeing war through the eyes of children, or in this case, of animals, that gets us to see it afresh.”

Sereno notes a tearful scene in which Antonina helps birth a baby elephant. “There was so much beauty in that moment,” Sereno says. “Her connection to all the animals was quite powerful, wasn’t it? It felt like the perfect comment on what’s going on right now in the world, all these questions we’re asking about what it means to be human, and what our responsibilities are to take care of each other. But to explore all of that through this woman’s love of animals, that was extraordinary. I think Antonina exemplifies the highest possibility of what humans are capable of, while also showing us the worst possibilities of what humans are capable of—the Nazis and the ghetto and the trains to the concentrations camps.”

“In a way, it was a very moral movie, without ever being preachy,” I suggest. “It worked on a very emotional level.”

“I heard a scientist once, this utter intellectual, who was asked what it was he thought that could save the planet from destruction,” Sereno says, “and his answer was, ‘The sensation of awe. That’s the only thing that can save us.’ I get chills just thinking about that.

“There’s so much awe in this film,” she continues. “I really do feel that it’s … in a state of connection with other beings, animals and people, children and adults, strangers and family, that we all can rise. That’s our destiny, I believe, to really become caretakers of this planet, and of each other. And we can do that, if we can allow ourselves to experience that transformative state of wonder.”

“There’s so much destruction and violence in this world, though,” I counter. “Can we ever really give that up, as a species?”

“Yes,” Sereno says. “I think the urge to destroy comes when our impulse to create and connect is frustrated. If that impulse is encouraged, rather than suppressed, then I think healing and connecting and creating is our natural tendency.”

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