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Ciaran Berry

01-25-09

Electrocuting an Elephant

 

Like mourners, or men setting out early for a duel,

they follow these six tons, this hunk of flesh,

muddy and whorled, this elephant they tried once to hang

because she killed three men and survived

 

their carrots laced with cyanide.  Coney Island, 1903,

and the handheld camera that gets all of this down

is a clock for seeing, as Barthes tells us it ought to be,

the image forever ticking over as three men,

 

in sepia and near-silhouette, step through a vacant lot,

follow the lead of the burly handler, who carries

a sleek whip, a coil of rope, as he leads his charge towards

the spot where they will set two of her feet

 

in copper shoes.  Think of the boy, who sat in front of you

that year in school, led by the ear to the corner

of the classroom because he couldn’t spell vengeance

after three turns.  Think of the bull, three summers old,

 

pulled by the horns towards the place of sacrifice

so that bees might rise up out of its pooled blood.

And this too must be the way they took Bartholomew

after he made the King’s brother deny his gods—

 

one guard gripping the prisoner’s left arm and the three others,

who follow, unable to muster a single word

as they march down the main street of their village

towards the blue edge of the Caspian Sea,

 

where they will dispose of this son of Tolomai,

taking turns to open him with knives.  What do they think

as they sulk after the condemned, this trinity,

who are not quite men yet despite their pristine uniforms,

 

or these others like extras from one of the first westerns

with their hats and mustaches, their say-nothing expressions

that barely make it beyond the ground sand of the lens

and onto this reel that unravels as I find myself

 

thinking again about that boy who, in Scoil Muire,

sat in the front row of those battered desks

with the defunct inkwells the dry hinges that opened

into a box to store your books?  This time he’s reeling off

 

the names of birds.  He makes a fist and hammers it

against his skull to bring forth robin redbreast, stonechat, crow,

while the rest of us raise our hands with what we think

are the right answers and hold our breaths trying not to laugh.

 

The truth is, I can’t remember his name, only the way

his clothes reeked of stale milk and hay, and how

his father once tied a frying pan between the legs of their mongrel

to discourage it from running after cars.  I’d like

 

to whisper this story into the ear of the keeper

before the film goes any further, before they reach

the spot where a crowd waits, impatient,

shifting from foot to foot.  I’d like to tell him how,

 

after those four boys have done their dirty work

and turned into something older than they were before,

Bartholomew becomes that figure above the altar

in the Sistine Chapel who holds up a tanner’s knife

 

and his own skin, another saint made patron

to those who wield the tools that worked his exit

from this world.  And though it changes nothing,

I want to explain how, when the elephant falls, she falls

 

like a cropped elm.  First the shudder, then the toppling

as the surge ripples through each nerve and vein,

and she drops in silence and a fit of steam to lie there

prone, one eye opened that I wish I could close.

 

Over By

 

Swell pummels rock, darkens sand, creeps upshore

to stir beach stones and periwinkle shells,

the bone-dry bladderwrack and sea lettuce

out of which swarms of flies rise, disturbed,

to hang their scrim above the waterline,

a low fog of wing, thorax, abdomen.

The give and take of waves, their push and drag,

symbol for all that is given and snatched away,

or so the old story goes, the fishwife's tale

in which we're born and die on the tide's turn,

 

shucked out into the world when water's high

against quayside, barge, and quarterdeck,

then loosed from this, the bodies current stilled

when the sea retreats, folds in upon itself,

leaving behind odd boots, smoothed shards of glass,

          each new day’s array of carcasses:

          an unwanted dog drowned in a black bin bag,

an eyeless pollack, a black-headed gull,

sometimes a fisherman, or a humpback whale.

          All that’s pelagic, all that’s nautical,

 

must end up on this wind-battered shore,

          hence all those sea fables and their metaphors,

          all that blarney about Oisin and Bran,

the latter convinced by homesick Nechtan

to leave behind their island of women

          and sail back to a mainland where everyone

          they’d known had gone to ground, become the soil

they had once tilled and hoed.  And so, come to the end

of his own voyage, returned centuries on,

          and unaware of how he cheated death,

 

Nechtan extends a foot from the currach

          and, on touching home turf, is turned to sand,

          a small urn’s worth of ground down flesh and bone,

a splash of bright atoms the squall will catch

and disperse over beach, bog, glen, mountain,

          minute fragments in the great beating down

          to topsoil, humus, loam that is endless.

Almost bent double with his crooked spine

as he stood at the end of the gravel path

          leaning hard on a hawthorn walking stick,

 

Mici Dubh Thimi used to enthrall me

          with wild stories of his time over by

          which meant anywhere across the water,

anywhere that could be reached by boat,

hence the harsh Edinburgh or Glasgow

          Mici and his brother had once sailed for

          to carry hod or work shovel and pick,

but also, perhaps, where he thought it would end,

after that gravel path met the main road,

          after the final waters showed their course

 

towards, let’s say, an outcrop of white rock,

          the sea unkinked and sun-dappled below

          an island full of whiskey and tobacco,

where he would settle with a Woodbine and a glass,

full, perhaps, of the same bliss as this cormorant

          above my head that, lured by the shimmer

          of rockfish, gathers its wings and plunges

like something dropped, reckless with instinct.

A pure thing, without doubt, without question,

          as its beak breaks the water’s cold surface

 

the entire bird is swallowed up, consumed

          by spume and backwash, slap and sway of brine.

          The Bilqula ancients believed the soul

would quit the body like this, in a winged shape,

breaking from the nape of the neck, rising

          into whatever sphere it would enter.

          To others, it was a fine dust, essence

that could escape through the navel or nose,

the mouth, the feet, by way of a fresh cut,

          a yawn, a sneeze.  Or else it was a thumb-

 

sized manikin who sat on a plush throne

          in the crown of the head, who resembled

          in every aspect the form of his or her

carrier; who, when the body slept, was prone

to wander, dropping down through the ear;

          who, when death came, would permanently leave,

          begin that slow journey across the sea,

through blanket bog and field, or venturing down

that beaten track poor Orpheus followed

          to plead for the return of his child bride,

 

her ankles still swollen from the snake bite.

          I love these old stories, each conjecture

          like a stone skimmed across the blue surface—

although (I know) stones sink, although

even the rough ones are worked smooth

          and pushed against the dunes by the spring tides,

          and, then in winter, carried to sea again

to be worked over, smoothed stone to pebble,

and pebble to this sand I step across

          picking up scallop shells, a mermaid’s purse,

 

dragging this grief that’s endless and useless,

          that resolves nothing and consoles nothing.

          The light now giving way, a beam of white

from the lighthouse on a nearby island

scans the rough bay for any sign of life

          and finds a trawler motoring towards the line

          where the sky becomes sea and vice versa.

A reef bell cries among the orange bouys,

and now, reaching its height for the last time,

          that cormorant tucks in its wings, and dives.

 

                                -from The Sphere of Birds



Listen to/read my review of "The Sphere of Birds" here

 

Archive


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