"The Elephant"

A weekly poem, read by the author.
Oct. 4 2005 7:47 AM

"The Elephant Poet"

Click here to listen to Dan Chiasson read this poem.     "It is known that one elephant who was rather slow in learning
    his tricks and had been punished severely by his master's beating,
    was discovered later that night, alone in his tent, practicing those
    tricks." —Pliny the Elder,
Natural History, Book III

What we saw on festival day: play infantries
with real spears, real veins, a real soldier
pulled across the festival grounds trailing blood
the way a paintbrush is pulled across a canvas;
lesser mischief, on the periphery: my friend saw
a man gouge out an elephant's eyes with a shovel,
and the elephant cried Oh, I am Murdered!
the way we do—wordless, comical, in choirs of kazoos:

was that poetry? Or is poetry picking a pretty word,
say, "charred" instead of "burned"—
as in "charred in a fire"? What happens is so raw,
all on its own; it hurts; words should perhaps
protect us from what happens.
Perhaps words should be a shield, rather than
a mirror; and maybe poems should be
an ornamented shield, like the ones

gods made for their favorite soldiers,
sons and lovers. Poems should be
like people's faces by firelight:
a little true, for verification's sake,
but primarily beautiful. Or like
pomegranates: hard to open at first
but, when you get them open, full of sweet granules
of meaning. Once, when I was bathed in wine

as part of a military victory parade,
I was purple for a month—
I liked the looks of me that way,
like a giant pomegranate seed!
That's what a poem should be:
recognizable reality, but dyed,
a sign that someone here felt joy,
someone had release from pain,

one minute they lived they felt no pain,
the war was over, killing was over
and they were not killed, not maimed.
I liked myself that way. I remember
as a boy, after she had done her obsequies
to the moon, down at the riverbank,
my mother put me to bed and whispered,
"Frederick"—for that is my name—"Frederick,

you saved my life; mommy wanted to die
before she felt you stir inside her."
It made me feel wonderful. Thereafter,
I never felt anything other
than completely central to her life—
what a gift that was. I suppose I understand
my future years in light of our intense
bond, my hours waiting for her outside

the dispatcher's office, the time she
dated a guy with a criminal record
and soon she found out why—I held her
that time, that time she was the calf
and I the mommy. She was a kind of guitar
to learn forgiveness on, its harmonies
and, yes, even its bungled chords.
And I learned to pity the powerful—

my trainer, forcing me to puff a cigarette
was himself forced, by powers
far greater than he, to force me;
so I did it, though my lungs hurt,
though my lungs felt sandpapered after.
I almost wrote "sad-papered" there; isn't it weird
the way the mind works, because
as I fill this paper up with words

I do feel sad, thinking of him lighting
that cigarette, placing it between my lips,
the wild applause, our strange
intimacy, and my relief—my god,
I thought I might swallow
that fire and become fire. Let me tell you
about my sister, Sarah, and a custom
that's long since been lost: Sarah