“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

was hired to be a lying-in girl
by the Bridgeport circus. This was before
the war—or rather, between them.
The ringmaster, not yet famous, invented
a new high-wire act: a large bull
would carry a petite cow across
the wire, holding her in a bonnet
hung upon his trunk, the cow lying

in a pile of down blankets, moaning.
The crowd was stunned: never
had they seen an elephant carry
another elephant across the sky,
across the almost invisible, single thread
of twine. Once the bull crossed
and backed down the ladder, though—
surprise! From the bonnet, a pair of calves

appear and sport around the ring!
“Lying-in Sarah” made the circus rich.
The ultimate fate of that circus need not
here be discussed: that fire was
a tragedy, just let me say; and say also,
it was not mother’s fault. Sarah’s
memorabilia are strewn all over
my apartment; some day I’ll frame it all;

some day the world will know
her name, and perhaps associate me
with her, in some small way. I am aware
that in certain uncivilized places,
where men grunt at one another
and know not speech, know not poetry
or any other art that ennobles us,
elephants still are hunted for their tusks;

myself, I had my own removed as soon
as I had the money, and hired
an artisan to carve from them my life’s story—
there is an icon of the moon; a river
icon; three figures together, representing
Sarah, my mother and me; a flag
to show my love of country …
but I’ve gone on too long. And plus,

the stuff people accumulate and say
“This was my life”—it isn’t just boring,
it’s also vaguely creepy, even if it was
once part of their bodies. Is it this way
with poetry? I hope not, since all day long
I write my poetry, my “sad paper.”
Let others say if I’m bronze or not, say
if this Frederick be a poet or a scribbler.