by John Philip Drury
They can’t match backgrounds, really, but we need
the metaphor. Mom bought one at the circus
when I was eight years old. She kept the string
around its neck and leashed it to a curtain,
secured by a safety pin. I don’t recall
naming the thing, and when we moved away
my mother gave it to a science teacher
at Cambridge Junior High. But when I think
of our lost cottage on the Eastern Shore
of Maryland, the small chameleon’s there,
alive in the color-wheel of memory,
refusing to change, as I could not refuse
losing my accent, trying to blend in
and be invisible. His claws grip fabric,
motionless and dark on the sunlit drape.
Checking facts, I found that I was wrong
to think the lizard clutching our barkcloth folds
was a chameleon, the only term
my mother ever flaunted in her stories.
The vendors at the circus called them “bugs,”
but online research proved our curtain pet
was really an anole (rhymes with cannoli):
a dactyloid, clinger to surfaces,
capable of changing from green to brown
because of stress, aggression, social greetings,
but not, apparently, for camouflage.
The chords of accuracy are dissonant.
Errata raise objections in the margins,
in after-the-fact disclaimers, but also in
the palinode, which Stesichorus used,
retracting what the rhapsodes sang of Helen:
it wasn’t true; she never sailed to Troy.
I wonder, now, how much my mom embellished,
turning distortions to anecdotal beauty.
We bought a tiny lizard at the circus
and tethered it to drapery in our house.
But when we left town, did a science teacher
keep it in a terrarium in his lab?
Or did my mother set it loose outside?
Or flush it? Our house was gone, and so were we,
clinging to metaphor that bruised the truth
and getting facts wrong. But the story stays.
We’re still chameleons who can’t help changing.
John Philip Drury is the author of four full-length poetry collections: The Disappearing Town and Burning the Aspern Papers (both from Miami University Press), The Refugee Camp (Turning Point Books), and most recently Sea Level Rising (Able Muse Press). He has also written Creating Poetry and The Poetry Dictionary. He teaches at the University of Cincinnati.