Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Why Write a Poem about Elephants?

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Why Write a Poem about Elephants?

Article excerpt

A close reading of selected Southern African poems about elephants provides a window onto interdisciplinary readings of southern African ecocritical issues generally, involving three interlocking aspects: local ecological realities, especially managerial conservation ethics; the animal-human interface as it emerges in anthropomorphic expression; and a cautious, even self-ironizing, articulation of beauty and mystery.


Tall-topped acacia, you, full of branches, Ebony-tree with the big
spreading leaves.
--Michael Chapman, The New Century of South African Poetry

I doubt there exists anywhere a more compactly metaphoric poem describing an elephant. Although it was translated from a San or Bushman dialect in Cape Town, South Africa, in the 1870s, it may be the most ancient southern African elephant poem we possess. The San--those elusive but hardy autochthons whose artwork, painted and etched on rocks throughout the subcontinent, dates back in some cases 27,000 years--were themselves classified as animal by disparaging colonial gunmen. Elephants, acacia trees, and the San were together consumed by a wave of hunters, commandos, and acquisitive settler-farmers and their stock. Of all the non-human wild creatures whose decimation paralleled that of the San, none is more poignant, ironic, or emotive in its story than the elephant. As Mark Elvin suggests through the title of his environmental history of China, the "Retreat of the Elephants" is world-wide a primary icon of humanity's advance against wilderness.

It will hardly be surprising, then, that more recent poems about elephants are dominated by an elegiac tone. This is especially true of the poems by white Southern African poets on which I focus here: these works exemplify a peculiarly intense confluence of debates around modern ecological managerialism, racially-inflected land-use, postcolonial political identities, animal and landscape aesthetics, and the validity of "anthropomorphic" portrayals of animal subjectivity. Any reading of these poems that ignores these aspects and the intricate relations between them will, I wish to suggest, be incomplete: there can be no adequate understanding of the elephant problem without understanding its textual imaginaries, and vice versa.

At the same time, the poems--quite deliberately--do not make theoretical claims as interventions into these debates: they tend, like some naturalists' writings, to "circumvent the opposition between constructivist and realist epistemologies" (Crist 810). To put this another way, in their very discourse they eschew both Cartesian mechanistic models of animality and, in their rootedness in closely-observed southern African ecological specificities, purely imaginative fantasies. In occupying this middle ground, they "cannot be formalized into a set of precepts" (832), rather fulfilling another vital role in human consciousness, the role of what Jonathan Bate calls "ecopoesis": to "engage imaginatively with the non-human" (199). Hence, in what follows, I offer primarily a close ecologically-oriented reading of some poems rather than a direct engagement with the metaphysical or theoretical debates. I do, however, want to gesture shortly towards one theoretical area that seems under-researched at present: the nexus of animal beauty and the discourses of anthropomorphism. In combination, I think, these two concepts converge in their ethical implications, implications that infuse these suggestive and deliberately non-didactic poems.

The development of both animal- and landscape aesthetics in southern Africa, and in particular those associated with modern European-oriented, conservation-minded literary works, may be pointed up by comparison with two earlier poems: one settler, the other indigenous. The first is by South Africa's first white poet of any consequence, Thomas Pringle.

When Pringle arrived with a rather hapless group of British settlers on the Cape Colony's easternmost frontier in 1820, successive swathes of land had been wrested from the resident Xhosa peoples, and warfare simmered continually. Just the year before, a tract of rough but potentially fertile country between the Great Fish and Keiskamma rivers, known then as the Neutral Ground, had been cleansed of Chief Ngqika's Xhosas in a manner that reminded Pringle of the Clearances in his native Scottish Highlands. The ground had not yet been colonized, however, and Xhosa raiding parties had burned the mission stations. Pringle, gazing over the Neutral Ground, composes a poem entitled "The Desolate Valley"--desolate because inhabited by no more than a couple of marginalized hunters, but nevertheless rather exuberantly populated by a resurgent wildlife, "more than the eye may count" (Pringle 50). From the point of view of a momentarily quiescent hunter's "wattled shieling," Pringle expostulates:

  How wildly beautiful it was to hear
  The elephant his shrill reveille pealing,
  Like some far signal-trumpet on the ear!
  While the broad midnight moon was shining clear,
  How fearful to look forth upon the woods,
  And see those stately forest-kings appear,
  Emerging from their shadowy solitudes--
  As if that trump had woken Earth's old gigantic broods! (50)

The register and vocabulary, drawn from the more popularized end of the Romantic spectrum, is both inappropriate and revealing. The elephant's call is "wildly beautiful," a characterization that lies awkwardly against what Pringle earlier calls the "waste" and "desolation" of this wilderness; the sight of elephants is, despite their beauty, "fearful," an almost magical emanation of shadows and solitudes, an atavistic product of a "gigantic" primeval past. There is no sense here of a functioning, independent natural ecosystem; rather, the trope is military, the elephants are an army, royal in stature but presenting themselves in effect for violent destruction. The Xhosa, lurking in the background of the poem, are also one of "Nature's savage tribes" who must, in the poem's Christian eschatology, be likewise morally, if not physically, overcome.

As it happened, the Xhosa peoples, though nominally conquered, effectively fought the whites to a standstill, and survived. The elephants were (almost permanently) less fortunate. A century after Pringle wrote his poem, the elephant population of the Eastern Cape was 16--a tiny remnant hiding out in the impenetrable thickets of the Addo bush, having been systematically shot out in order to protect the emerging fruit-farmers of the nearby Sundays River valley, at which point the tide of public opinion began to turn. In response to almost global concerns about the destruction of wildlife, Major P.J. Pretorius's rifle, previously entrusted with the elimination of the last elephantine marauders of oranges and maize, was shelved, and replaced by a massive fence of cable and railway-sleepers. The Addo National Park was proclaimed. Today, Addo boasts over 300 elephants, the biggest population of the animals outside South Africa's flagship reserve, Kruger National Park. Indeed, Addo is being expanded, and genetically refreshed with elephants translocated from overpopulated Kruger. As more former farmland throughout the country is diverted to "wilderness" enterprises, and many previously locally-extinct species are reintroduced, elephant ranges are gradually being increased.

The history of the southern African elephant--and of its associated rhetorics--thus represents a remarkable turnaround, with far-reaching social, cultural, and literary implications. Once, elephants were regarded as little more than mobile repositories of ivory encased in redundant flesh. Now, they are a flagship species for all conservation, a quasi-human, psychologically sensitive social being, the welfare of which raises human emotional temperatures to the highest pitch. This turnaround has been neither uniform nor smooth. Nor is the conflict between farming and elephants over. Even in its present positive phase, Addo's history reminds us that the geography of wildlife distribution in the region, irreversibly altered over the last three centuries, is now fundamentally a management issue, fenced in as never before by human population growth and the politics of land-use, and affected more than ever by the "spin" of public perception and emotion. And there are few bigger headaches for conservation authorities in southern Africa than that of perceived elephant over-population.

There is, therefore, a peculiar irony in the aforementioned elegiac note struck by most of the poems that follow. It is a note intimately connected, I think, with notions of animals--especially elephants (along with apes, dolphins, and dogs)--as individuated subjectivities and therefore as intrinsically valuable, even beautiful.

This essentially modern, even postcolonial, conceptualizing of the elephant's "inner world" has, for many commentators and ecologists, raised the spectre of anthropomorphism, a peculiarly prickly issue in the Western treatment of the animal-human interface. It is to be stressed that reactions towards anthropomorphism are culturally circumscribed, as demonstrated by the second earlier poem, a traditional Hurutshe praise-poem from northern South Africa:

  I'm the big one of the mother of trees,
  The big one eating trees,
  Picker of leaves,
  Big-grain-basket of the hyena's place,
  Worm with the big appetite,
  Digger of trees:
  Let me dig the shepherd's tree and the elandsboontjie.
  I'm the big one of the mother of trees.
  I'm the elephant, kin to mankind,
  Hence I regard mankind's ways with fear;
  And so, when I kill one, I bury him, like people do,
  And I stay unmarried, like people do,
  And I rub on medicine, like people do.
  I'm the big one of the mother of trees,
  Smasher of trees. (Opland 169)

Traditional African poetry is less given to focussed lyrics than to the chanting, epithet-based spontaneity of the praise-poem, but this poem, while bearing several praise-poem features, lingers interestingly. In crucial ways, it reinvokes a metaphoric world-view similar to that of the San: one in which human and animal are intrinsically part of a single realm of consciousness, in which elephant and man are kin. Here, as editor Jeff Opland puts it, "the poet presents the human race as the elephant's totem" (169)--a reversal of the usual flow of tribal identity, power, and reverence--even as the description embodies finely metaphorical observations of elephant physiology and behaviour. This kind of first-person imagining of an elephant's inner world, at least in the Western oeuvre, is radically at odds with "rationalist," whole-ecology-level managerialism; and in the "white" poems, the latter makes itself felt by way of a distinct reticence about too-overt an anthropomorphism, a reticence strikingly lacking in the Hurutshe poem.

Thomas Pringle appears to be almost the last southern African poet to use the word "beautiful" in relation to the elephant--though the beauty, evoked by distant sound rather than close sighting, seems to lie largely within the poet-speaker's own emotional response to a generalized thrill of wildness. In a solitary modern exception, generalization of the beauty is again evident, though with opposite ethical implications: Cape Town jeweller-writer Mike Cope's Buddhist-oriented poem "the inner school final knysna elephant tantra" gestures towards the sacralizing power of beauty. Cope's lines, "animals including human / sentient being beyond number / weep at her passing [...] free paths / no fixed signs / walk on real land," cast beauty as a mix of longing, elegy, identification, and authenticity (Cope n.p.). These united aspects, together comprising a less superficial, non-visual conception of beauty, I want to suggest, also underpin other poems under review.

Perhaps part of the problem is that elephants themselves are not conventionally beautiful--baggy, shambling, flapping, even comical beasts with none of the self-evident grace of a cheetah or springbok. Beauty (or ugliness) is so obvious a feature of humans' treatment of animals that it seems philosophically somewhat neglected. Beauty scarcely appears as a subject in any of the standard texts on animal rights, (1) for example, nor in Akira Lippitt's comprehensive view of the anthropological literature, nor in the most oft-cited studies of animal-human boundaries, (2) nor in the annals of Society and Animals journal, nor in the extensive online Animal Studies Bibliography. Animals-as-beautiful make only a brief appearance in Malcolm Budd's study, The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature. (3) Holmes Rolston's 1987 essay "Beauty and the Beast: The Aesthetic Experience of Wildlife" is suggestive but brief, more poetic than philosophical. This relative neglect is despite the fact that amongst "nature writers," the beauty of animals is self-evident and pervasive. Nothing is more central to the elephant management issue, and to the issue of culling elephants in order to preserve a putatively "natural" ecosystem, than an aesthetic of the individual elephant being pitched against an aesthetic of "wild" but "balanced" landscapes.

Beauty, however conceived, has a capacity, in Elaine Scarry's argument, to invoke fair and just behaviour in humans, to raise "an urge to protect it, to act on its behalf" (80). Elephants' studied calm, their earth-shifting bulk, their accretion of legends, their capacity to harbour mysteriousness in a way inconceivable in a mosquito, or a lizard, or even a lion, attracts an attentiveness and desire to do right by their inner worlds closely related to that invoked by more conventional beauties. Scarry goes beyond Aquinas's definition of beauty as integritas, consonantia, and claritas, outlining a number of other features that will echo throughout the discussion that follows. Amongst these, briefly, are that the "beautiful thing seems--is--incomparable, unprecedented" (23), and so urges a kind of replication: it "incite[s] the desire to bring new things into the world: infants, epics, sonnets [...]" (46). Further, it "requir[es] us to break new ground" while obliging us "also to bridge back [...] to still earlier, even ancient, ground" (46). In its "generous sensory availability" (a phrase just made for elephants!), the beautiful object urges us to look further (109). In a "radical decentering," its very difference brings about a "nonself-interestedness" (117) as well as a corrective to "lateral disregard"--the idea that attention to one thing necessitates a lack of concern for its neighbours. In a turn that is tantalizingly congruent with notions of ecological interconnectedness, Scarry suggests that in its innate "symmetry," the beautiful thing redistributes our attentions, "invites the search for something beyond itself, something larger or something of the same scale with which it needs to be brought into relation" (29). (The best example I know of this comes from Addo, where you will be amused by road-signs giving right of way to dung-beetles: their ministrations to elephant dung are now recognized as a vital component of the whole and wholesome ecosystem.) In short, "beautiful things give rise to the notion of distribution, to a lifesaving reciprocity, to fairness not just in the sense of loveliness of aspect but in the sense of 'a symmetry of everyone's relation to one another'" (95). It evokes a movement from "beauty to duty," in Rolston's phrase ("Beauty" 127). Clearly, these ideas are amplified by the recent re-imagining of the elephant as complex, cultural, familial, even quasi-human.

The rhetorics of anthropomorphism imply, I would argue, a closely analogous ethical dimension. The impress of empirical science and behaviourist models in ethology has made anthropomorphism "one of the great anxieties of the modern age," in Marian Scholtmeijer's view (89). The critical literature on the anthropomorphism issue is now huge, and a full engagement with its philosophical implications is beyond the scope of this paper.4 Suffice it to say that the main division appears to be between those who argue, with Charles T. Snowdon, that "it is possible to explore the cognitive capacities of non-human animals without recourse to mentalistic concepts such as consciousness, intentionality and deception" (813), and those who, with Marc Bekoff and Eileen Crist, argue that such rigorous behaviouralist models and discourses mean that "animal behaviors can appear automated as a consequence of a descriptive technology that is generic and thin" (Crist 832). The current southern African literature on the elephant problem is likewise deeply divided between writers who valorize scientific objectivity and statistically-unimpeachable ecological studies, and those who valorize the beauty, intrinsic rights, and subjectively-experienced (anthropomorphized) sentience of other beings. The former denounce the latter as "emotional bunny-huggers," beholden to unworkable sentimentality; the latter denounce the former for lack of compassionate imagination.

Certainly there exists an extreme of anthropomorphic attribution that can seem entirely inappropriate; on the other hand, as Mary Midgely has argued, there is not always much if any difference between the ways in which we attribute states of mind and motivation to other people and to animals. She cites a passage from Konrad Lorenz's King Solomon's Ring with which our Hurutshe poet might well have agreed: "You think I humanize the animal?[...] What we are wont to call 'human weakness' is, in reality, nearly always a pre-human factor and one which we have in common with the higher animals [...] an enormous animal inheritance [that] remains in man, to this day" (350). The Hurutshe poem above comes close, I think, to Crist's notion of "the Verstehen approach" to attributions of mind and emotion to other creatures; while humorous, it does not ironize itself as many of the other poems we will examine do, a self-consciousness I take to be a direct reflection of the impress of the anthropomorphism debate. While "hard science" has frequently dominated in the discourse of the elephant debate, a number of naturalists have also insisted that not only do elephants possess an inner world analogous to ours, but that the application of our "human" emotional discourse is both possible and appropriate (see, e.g., Payne; Pickover).

The sense that humans and elephants are not only biologically but socially, even psychologically, cognate, has thus affected literary treatments and the practicalities of elephant management indivisibly. The developing belief that elephants suffer "psychological trauma" from culling operations, for instance, has dramatically changed the ways in which culling is carried out, and you will be hard-pressed to find a ranger who will not profess a deep unease at having to kill elephants (see, e.g., Chadwick 436). Katy Payne's demonstrations of elephants' infrasonic communication, combined with studies of their matriarchal, non-territorial social structures, have led to quasi-feminist arguments that elephants possess a ritualized, non-aggressive culture that can act as exemplar to humans, a source of healing. Isabel Bradshaw, for instance, argues that the rehabilitation of orphaned elephants can provide a model for an "ethical journey to a third space of subjectivity," and "a new interspecies epistemology" or conception of community (6).

Recent white southern African poems about elephants, while to a large degree predicated on such perceptions of commonality, are striking in the ways in which human-elephant differences still remain inscribed. Carrying to varying degrees the baggage of their historically immigrant status, the white poets almost inadvertently evidence the discomfiture with which they negotiate the borderlands between interspecies subjectivity and exteriorized observation, between an apparent aversion to superficial "beautification" and an undeniable attraction to deeper identification, and between this identification and a residual guilt at their historically exterminatory culture. In these very tensions, perhaps, we might discern reasons for using the discursive techniques of poetry--for writing about elephants in a poem rather than in some other form.

A now well-known place to start looking for insights into the role of poetry is in the chapter entitled "The Poets and the Animals," in J.M. Coetzee's provocative The Lives of Animals. As Marjorie Garber laments in her response in that book (in Coetzee, Lives 80), however, Coetzee's focus shifts quickly away from discussion of some exemplary animal poems to philosophical issues of a more general nature; the question of poetic discourse itself is barely discussed. Jonathan Bate comes closer in his The Song of the Earth. His basic question is: "What are poets for in our brave new millenium?" His answer: "to remind the next few generations that it is we who have the power to determine whether the earth will sing or be silent" (282). Bate would read "earth" as including "animals," though his treatment of poetry and animals is also slender. His one hint, emerging in discussion of an Elizabeth Bishop poem, "The Moose," however, will serve to carry us over into our own discussion. Bishop, Bate writes, "knows that we can only know nature by way of culture"; she knows that "the ineffability of large mammals" can only be described by way of "similes out of culture." But in her wonder at "the sheer physicality" of the natural, in her willingness to allow for the impenetrability of parts of the natural, she, like Seamus Heaney also, "squares up to the Januslike quality of the poet--singer of earth, exile from earth--and remains warily on guard as [s]he crisscrosses between culture and nature" (202-3). Hence poetry, in its very language, at its best questions the conventional linguistic boundaries of division, exemplified in the title of Stephen Wise's book, Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights, in which Wise attempts to attribute to elephants a numerical intelligence value on a strictly delimited hierarchy, rather than to imagine an individuated inner world. At the same time, such poems do not deny human culture: "[Animal] and human worlds resound within each other, rather than collapse into each other" (Crist 807). Conversely, as Marc Bekoff argues, "using anthropomorphic language does not have to discount the animal's point of view" (867). In what follows, then, I want first to point to interdisciplinary contextualization as essential to readings of the poetry that warily explore this necessary culture/nature crisscrossing; second to examine the ethical implications of the congruence of notions of beauty and of anthropomorphic imagining; and third to show how such imagining is dependent on certain instantiations of ambiguity, irony, even mysteriousness.

Let us begin with an elephant out of its natural habitat: an "encultured" elephant. In "The elephant is unhappy," Arja Salafranca describes a circus scene in its off-hours: defensively shuttered caravans, sparse grass, a "dog chained to a table" with its "tail between its legs." Similarly tethered, equally dispirited elephants attract onlookers, among them a mother holding a baby--an allusion to an ideal of family from which the captive elephants are now excluded (ever more frequently so, as "excess" elephants are sold off to zoos and circuses world-wide). Depicting one female elephant, Salafranca compactly inscribes the common process of behavioural ascriptions:

  An elephant blows sand onto herself,
  burrowing a hole into the ground
  as she sucks up earth, blows it,
  using her trunk to enlarge the hole at her feet.

  Her hide is wrinkled grey.
  Beyond, cars stream along the wide,
  sun-bleached road.
  She is tethered by [the] foot,
  held by a stake in the ground.
  She moves, her ears flap,
  her trunk grasps into the air,
  she sways, the chain stretches, but just
  before she reaches the end of the pull,
  she stops, sways, knows she can't go any further.
  Her trunk reaches out again,
  her big body sways slightly,
  a foot moves forward. The elephant is unhappy. (Salafranca 37-38)

The almost objective description of movement leads to an anthropomorphic attribution of mental states--knowing, unhappiness. Even in the observations, a feeling for the numbing distress of captivity, and perhaps a feminine sense of identification, is enacted in the repetitiousness of phrase and sound, the ponderousness of simple gestures, the poignancy of the self-undermining hole, the trunk "grasp[ing]", and "reach[ing] out again." Salafranca refrains from overstating the identification, from sentimentalizing, yet her indictment is clear in the very detachment of the poem's closing lines:

  Silently we walk away. The ground is
  squelchy underfoot, and the caravans
  are inscrutable: you can't see through
  their small lace-covered windows. (38)

Judgement, effectively, is inescapable, intrinsic to observation itself. All too often, the poet suggests, "we" silently walk away from the distress of creatures who at least potentially have as many commonalities with us as they have differences. These last lines depict a fundamental closing-off or fragmentation of community: the tangential communicability embodied in the speaker's sheer recognition of the elephant's subjectivity starkly shows up the deliberate eschewal of communication by the circus's human denizens. Part of the problem, as always, is that humans do not talk to each other enough; another part is that most humans do too little, or nothing, to combat abuse. How weak a crime anthropomorphism seems in comparison to the physical crime described here.

In "One Elephant," Douglas Livingstone, perhaps the most substantial of all South Africa's poets, characteristically packages his concern for the elephant in an initially comic guise, mediated by a third person. Livingstone's commitment to promoting the ecological health of his bioregion--indeed of the planet--is not in doubt: a microbiologist who devoted most of his life to monitoring and combatting pollution off South Africa's coast, he wrote a number of poems about cruel, unnecessary, or just natural, but saddening, animal deaths. Yet characteristic of many of his poems is a self-ironizing, a suspicion of the sentimental balanced against a quixotic reaching-out to other species, and an almost despairing disgust at human depredation.

  About that time arose one elephant
  from all the herd who stopped and cleared his throat
  and said: I can't for all the world at all
  remember what it was I had to say;
  I only know it was of great importance.
  He shook his ears; looked puzzled; slapped himself
  with gusto on the back and raised the dust;
  shifted capacious businessman's hindquarters
  in their ill-fitting pants; harrumphed and glared
  at the innocent thorn trees--his audience. (99)

While clearly founded on close observation of actual elephant behaviour, the comical humanization of the elephant suggests that it is the poet himself who is being ironized, unable to find his true subject, trapped between antinomous possibilities, and deeply conscious of nature's capacity to inflict puzzlement. The irony becomes more evident, more forbiddingly serious, in the third stanza, in which the grumbling elephant's point of view is used to critique humanity more generally:

  Ah yes! There comes a time when one commits,
  despite oneself, the ultimate! And sick
  of selfish beasts, their egos and their stench,
  their cunning cruelty, destructivity,
  one turns, despite oneself, grimly to Man. (99)

The stanza is fascinatingly ambiguous. In one sense, the elephant/speaker realizes his ultimate dependency on human will, with all its viciousness and failings. In a second possible reading, the elephant is the poet, philosophically divorced from his own species, sick of their selfishness, yet obliged in the end to turn to them for an audience: thorn trees--love of impersonal wilderness--will not suffice. On yet another level, Livingstone is cleverly inverting a conventional attribution of bestial qualities by humans to animals (stench, unthinking savagery, even the elephants' own infamous ecological impact on "innocent" thorn trees) as well as, more subtly, the kinds of beast-ly epithets used by humans to denigrate other humans--as Livingstone is himself doing in deftly ironic mode. In these involutions, the poet is consciously at odds with himself--alerted to this, in a way, by the presence of elephants. The final stanza involves a surrender to norms not unrelated to Salafranca's:

  Don't you agree? The thorn trees held their peace.
  Injured; his tusks ached in their ivory
  tower, he wheeled and shambled off to rejoin
  the ambling herd, remembering to avoid
  the smoky nests of heedless tingling ants. (99)

There are also poetic gripes here, perhaps, about the irritation of ant-like critics in their "ivory tower," and an obvious allusion to the dangers posed to the elephant's sheer existence by the ivory trade. In this imagining, then, as Scholtmeijer notes, "As soon as language begins to articulate the vital inner experience of animals, the suspicion arises that culture is learning more about itself than about animals per se" (89). Nevertheless, if these poems are beginning to hint at one thing, it is that the nature-culture dualism requires transgressing, and that one reason for writing poems is to take full advantage of the possibilities of language to bridge and embody both anthropocentric and biocentric meanings and values without falling into the traps either of self-serving sentimentality or of reductionist propaganda. It is to make a carefully qualified foray towards what Freya Mathews has elaborated as "the ecological self," the "nesting of a self" within wider "self-realizing" systems whereby "the logical interaction of the identities of selves both with other selves within the parent system and with the parent system itself" entail "an effective egalitarianism in respect of intrinsic value" (144). The congruence of this with Elaine Scarry's entailments of beauty is obvious; and amongst those "systems" must be counted the imagination itself. The ironies and ambivalences, however, embody its intrinsic limitations at every turn.

A second poem of Livingstone's, "To a Dead Elephant," is again shielded behind another persona, this time that of an indigenous African man--signified by the praise-poem-like opening line and the Zulu exclamation "Hau!"--looking back on a relationship of near-kinship with an elephant who grew up alongside him:

  Old Python Nose with the wind-rolling ears:
  Hau! I remember it well when you came,
  thin, small, grey, twinkle-eyed, stumbling and lame,
  to me, a lone boy with none of the fears
  that stalked the elders. Friend, I had no tears
  for both our young losses: but all the same
  you robbed me of those sweet potatoes!
  walked with us, both motherless, those coupled years. (29)

Not unlike the Hurutshe poem, this speaker finds touching commonality between elephant and human, this time in the grief of parental loss. He looks back on a time before fear, an almost Edenic state of innocence, though it is not uncomplicated by the age-old agricultural competition, and the "fame" that stalks them is ambiguous at best: almost certainly such renown lies behind the tragedy of this sonnet's sestet:

  But who can tame the trumpeter, the hill
  who stands invisible with bright old eyes,
  so slow, tree-bulky, dangerous and still?
  Why did you leave me to the elders' lies?
  Both men, we meet again, but not my will
  wrought this antheap with flies and hamstrung thighs. (29)

The reference to eyes in both octave and sestet is interesting, reminiscent of the fascinated, close-up photographs of the elephant's eye in the many coffee-table books now available. A number of writers attest to the arresting quality of an elephant eye encountered at close quarters. On the first page of her book, Silent Thunder, Katy Payne meets an Asian matriarch and her "patient amber eye": "bulk flowing forward, huge and slow. The eyes are looking down; the speckled ears are waving slowly and symmetrically in and out; the face--well, to call it a face" (13-14). This is to confirm Eileen Crist's observation that "a fundamental step in the disclosure of a lifeworld is that the animal's world is no longer faceless" (805), and Jacques Derrida's assertion that to recognize a face in another (another human, another species) is to open the possibility of response and, crucially, of responsibility (Derrida and Wills). It is also to acknowledge individuated consciousness, the possibility of distinguishing an object of beauty, and therefore to at least move towards non-self-interested ethical valuation. Livingstone's portrayal of the elephant--"tree-bulky, dangerous"--is scarcely beautiful in any conventional sense, yet it contains the honesty of beauty, to which he opposes the horror of those elders'"lies" and "fears" that bring about the poem's shocking denouement. What are those lies? Presumably that no kinship with wild creatures is ultimately possible; and that the elephant is irretrievably to be feared, is to be eliminated, can be exploited for its ivory without moral consequence. That Livingstone places this implication in the mouth of a "dissenting" African indigene is a move potentially fraught with problems of colonial-style (mis)representation. Though not referring overtly to white presences, the poem nevertheless performs a postcolonial gesture, voicing an implicit critique of an entire invasive cultural mindset.

The internal contradictoriness of such a stance--attempting to critique at least part of one's own culture from within it--is encapsulated in Noel Brettell's "Elephant." British-born but resident until his death in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Brettell comes closest of our poets to depicting the elephant as an object of beauty, at first (like the preceding poems) using metaphors drawn from the elephant's own natural environment, and so expressive of belonging within an ecosystem in a way not attained by, say, Pringle:

  Slowly the great head turned,
  And the late sunlight slept on massive flanks
  Like the still slabs of riven krantz,
  Immovable, and nonchalantly bearing
  The burden of the old enormous lies,
  The load of legendary centuries,
  The mighty turtle and the seas of milk
  On which the Old World swam;
  And slowly folded back the fluted ears
  Like pterodactyl wings drooping to roost. (7)

Brettell is unusually aware of the "Old World" encrustations of myth--those "lies" again--through which the elephant has inevitably been perceived, and counters them with the natural imageries of massive primordial rock and of dinosaur antiquity. It is a (not quite accurate) appeal to the primeval not unlike Pringle's, though one tinged with longing for a slower, more restful, more authentic living, imbued with the stillness of the "immovable." It is partly, if not merely, an egotistical longing for a more self-confident age; this longing becomes more obvious in the second part:

  Slowly the great limbs moved:
  The monstrous pistons in the wrinkled sheath,
  Unflurried and unhesitating, lift
  The huge facade across the afternoon:
  Like a great engine, headed north,
  With the deliberation of the six-foot wheels
  Slides from the vaulted terminus
  Down miles of metal through a continent. (7)

To the white "Rhodesian," the phrases "going north" and "through a continent" cannot fail to evoke the "Great North Road" and the Cape-to-Cairo ambition of Cecil John Rhodes, the colonial tycoon and politician after whom Rhodesia was named (and whose stature is slyly evoked too in the first line of the next section, cited below). The description now of the elephant's bulk through metaphors of inexorable mechanical commerce--piston-driven parodies of the old pachydermous migrations--might read as inversely recuperative of the language of machines, but the detrimental ecological consequences for the elephant of such actual machines are obvious. Brettell nevertheless idealizes the animal as "invulnerable," perpetuating another myth that is arguably as wistfully hopeful as it is ironic:

  Behemoth, baron, lord,
  In trigger-fingered world, one creature left unscathed;
  Away from us, over the burnt earth, under the prostrate branches,
  Casually stripping the green crown from a tree,
  Going oblivious, the invulnerable beast. (7)

Another short poem, by Eastern Cape poet Chris Mann, also treats the presence and effect of the legendary, specifically in the colonial context. In so many ways, past and present, the elephant symbolizes the mass, the power, the mystery of "Africa" as conceived by white colonials. In "The Graveyard of the Elephants," Mann invokes the tale told by "old time hunters" that "some place in Africa," in "a valley strewn with bones," elephants "would trumpet one last time / then slowly topple over among their kind" (14). Almost nothing exercises the imagination and the emotional engagement more than the belief that elephants have a preternatural awareness of the death of their own "tribe" uncannily similar to the human. That some such awareness exists is now so well-attested by multiple observers that it is beyond doubt (Bradshaw 3). What one makes of such observations is another thing. Certainly the devoted "graveyard" is a legend, but it is one, as Mann writes, that still has its uses:

  Those old hunter-types are gone,
  yet still the legend lingers,
  for elephants
  are ponderous, likeable, anachronistic beasts,
  and where better than Africa
  can old idealists go
  to lay their creaking structures down? (14)

If the decrepit mental structures of old colonials' delusions about elephants, Africa, and their own position in it, have yet fully to be laid to rest, the idea of the graveyard has taken on new and chilling contexts, as the prospect of culling again raises its head. It is a prospect lurking in the background of other poems, too, which I can only mention in passing here: Damian Shaw's satirical squib about the "white elephant" of lingering apartheid ideologues, slinking off to their own "White Elephant Graveyards" (18); and John Mateer's poem "The Elephant Graveyard," which describes directly the killing fields of culling operations (Chapman 412). As I mentioned earlier, however, the irony lies in the elegiac note, lamenting the passing of the elephant in the midst of (at least local) elephant overpopulation.

On the one hand, it is really the passing of that thoughtful, culture-bearing, psychologically sensitive individual elephant that is being lamented, even as it stands in symbolically for other wholesale ecocides. On the other, the danger of extinction (as is happening to elephant populations elsewhere) is not over: Thomas Pringle's poetic testimony, lying at a juncture when admiration and slaughter could coexist, is, in its oddly proleptic nostalgia, also a reminder that even great numbers is no defence against greater numbers of bullets. In Zimbabwe, what was only five years ago a problematic surplus of elephants is now once again threatened: government- and warlord-sponsored poaching, abetted by international hunters and traders and masked by President Robert Mugabe's monumentally botched "land reform" programme, is scouring many of the country's national parks and wildlife conservancies of every last specimen of exploitable game, including even the once-vaunted "Presidential Herd" of elephants of Matetsi. It remains possible that elephants, like dodos and quaggas, may become mere fossil-like words.

Perhaps it is something like this which Harold Farmer means in his line: "Poems about elephants are better than elephants" (34). Poems appear, astoundingly and sadly, more likely to survive. Farmer, a Zimbabwean of settler stock who has been unfairly neglected amongst southern African poets, has written two poems in which the role of the imagination and writing itself is foregrounded. In "Dreaming of Elephants," he depicts their ecology and behaviour finely even as he re-mythologizes it. In the opening section, Farmer reverses the northward colonial thrust associated with Rhodes: herds of elephants move "southward, always southward, / as if it were there they were going to make their last stand." The caution, even humility, lies in that "as if." In the second section, he captures the essential dilemma of the "animal other": we are caught between imagining their lives and the scientific or rationalist impulse to "believe" only in material realities.

  None of us have found it yet. The fabulous rumours,
  a cemetery of tusks, a mighty stockade of bones,
  how could we discount these things,
  but how believe in them?
  The elephants were like a people who could not perish
  in the normal way, but must save up for it,
  save themselves for that last expansive gesture. (17)

Farmer's diction has the weightiness of the elephants themselves, headed for a "destiny" that seems on the one hand inevitable, tragic, and imposed, but on the other heroic and supremely private. In their sheer bulk, stateliness, silence, their "generous sensory availability," elephants embody as no other creature apart from the whale, perhaps, the quintessential mysteriousness of the other, even as they are "like a people." In Farmer's poem, they are not undestructive: stripping trees, eroding river banks, shoving "crocodile and impala, predator and prey, out of the way." Hence it is "no joke" to be in their path, but also no joke to imagine "the fiesta of the dead," of the "last gathering," sacrosanct in its privacy. Imagining itself is powerful, intrusive, and necessary. In their enormous, epic progress, the elephants seem to be outside the normal processes even of nature, inviting consideration of "something beyond" themselves--another reason for them to be attractive to poets:

  The destiny of elephants, their project,
  is in their tyrannical mass, and they take it
  secretly, as if this is something which occurred
  only to the greatest. And perhaps it is.
  Perhaps that is why it is hard to resist dreaming
  about the fate of the elephants,
  and braving that danger. (Farmer 17-18)

Even as they march to their apparently unavoidable end, elephants preserve that essential mysteriousness, which, Farmer seems to indicate, poetic imagining must probe but finally swerve humbly away from: the elephants must be permitted to preserve their autonomous integrity. In that reticence, the poems enact the "nonselfinterestedness" (or non-selfinterestedness) proposed by Scarry.

Just what the "danger" of such imagining is may emerge more clearly from a final poem, Farmer's "Absence of Elephants." The danger is not so much in the imagining per se--imagining is surely vital--but that the poems may replace the elephants, human culture replace nature. In an essential way, in Farmer's view, the poems begin within the elephants, and the elephants' absence would be to leave only verbal husks. This poem, which begins sardonically but works its way into a rich sadness, deserves quoting in full.

  Poems about elephants are better than elephants.
  Survival, what's that? The uprooting of trees, who cares?
  The slow, residual thickening of the forest floor
  with the accumulated detritus of elephants,
  the harried, panicky ants staring at logs in their path,
  the abrupt awakening of owls by crashing tusks,
  the collaboration upsetting the repose of the river,
  are only the outward and visible signs of the poem.

  The poem in the elephant is the breath of the elephant.
  Do elephants breathe? We never think of it like that,
  of the imperceptible suspiration of lesser beings.
  The elephants march through stanzas, cantos, epics.
  They dash their feet against the glossy, black boards
  of continental circuses. "Ah!" the crowd cries.
  They take their place in the stone carvings of St Jerome,
  and breathe a soft undertone to the sighs of worshippers.
  The elephant is minister to the soul's grandeur.

  Poetry is no more than the breath of elephants.
  In the invisible decline of elephants, the shuddering heap
  from which I turn in embarrassment, the empty waterhole
  which has sent all the animals stamping through
  the cracked, black clay, the dry air falls like a mantle,
  a perfect fury, driving the beasts to madness.
  The absence of elephants is the death of my words.
  Ghostly and grey, in a mute caravan, roll clouds,
  caverns of darkness, the excrescences of the poem. (34-35)

Farmer, closely echoing Scarry's notions of beauty, might also have been reading Rilke: "Yet in the alert, warm animal there lies the pain and burden of an enormous sadness. For it too feels the presence of what often overwhelms us: a memory, as if the element we keep pressing toward was once more intimate, more true, and our communion infinitely tender. Here all is distance; there it was breath" (qtd. in Lippitt 800).

In the Blakean imagery of his close, Farmer here utters the most moving of all the poetic laments we have examined--and they are all, in their way, elegies to the real and all-too-possible demise of our most fascinating mammal. Above all, poetry is the medium of elegy. In "Absence of Elephants" we have no better example, I think, of a poem that is so attuned to an ecology of imagining, in which material realities, the ethical implications of independent beauty, a non-impositional anthropomorphism, and a humbly sanctifying artistry are so evidently integral. It is a resonant exemplification of one of Douglas Livingstone's mantras for a humanity becoming, like the elephants, increasingly embattled within its own ecological destructiveness: "Symbiosis or death" (312).


1/ See Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Avon Books) 1977; Keith Tester, Animals & Society: The Humanity of Animal Rights (London: Routledge) 1991; Stephen Clark, Animals and their Moral Standing (London: Routledge) 1997.

2/ See Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature; Jennifer Ham and Matthew Senior, Animal Acts: Configuring the Human in Western History (Routledge: New York) 1997.

3/ Malcolm Buddy, The Aesthetic of Appreciation of Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press) 2002.

4/ Compare with Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal (Palo Alto: Stanford UP) 2004; Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman, Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism (New York: Columbia UP) 2005; John Knight, Animals in Person: Cultural Perspectives on Human-Animal Intimacy (Oxford: Berg), 2005; Eileen Crist, Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Mind (Philadelphia, PA: Temple UP) 1999.


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DAN WYLIE teaches English at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa, and has published two books on Shaka the Zulu leader, a memoir of the Rhodesian war, and several volumes of poetry. He is currently working on a book on the elephant.

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