Marianne Moore’s Elephants

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Elephants
by Marianne Moore

Uplifted and waved till immobilized
wistaria-like, the opposing opposed
mouse-gray twined proboscises’ trunk formed by two
trunks, fights itself to a spiraled inter-nosed

deadlock of dyke-enforced massiveness. It’s a
knock-down drag-out fight that asks no quarter? Just
a pastime, as when the trunk rains on itself
the pool it siphoned up; or when–since each must

provide his forty-pound bough dinner–he broke
the leafy branches. These templars of Tooth,
these matched intensities, take master care of
master tools. One, sleeping with the calm of youth,

at full length in the half-dry sun-flecked stream-bed,
rests his hunting-horn-curled trunk on shallowed stone.
The sloping hollow of the sleeper’s body
cradles the gently breathing eminence’s prone

mahout, asleep like a lifeless six-foot
frog, so feather light the elephant’s stiff
ear’s unconscious of the crossed feet’s weight. And the
defenseless human thing sleeps as if

incised with hard wrinkles, embossed with wide ears,
invincibly tusked, made safe by magic hairs!
As if, as if, it is all ifs; we are at
much unease. But magic’s masterpiece is theirs–

Houdini’s serenity quelling his fears.
Elephant-ear-witnesses-to-be of hymns
and glorias, these ministrants all gray or
gray with white on legs or trunk, are a pilgrims’

pattern of revery not reverence–a
religious procession without any priests,
the centuries-old carefullest unrehearsed
play. Blessed by Buddha’s Tooth, the obedient beasts

themselves as toothed temples blessing the street, see
the white elephant carrying the cushion that
carries the casket that carries the Tooth.
Amenable to what, matched with him, are gnat

trustees, he does not step on them as the white-
canopied blue-cushioned Tooth is augustly
and slowly returned to the shrine. Though white is
the color of worship and of mourning, he

is not here to worship and he is too wise
to mourn–a life prisoner but reconciled.
With trunk tucked up compactly–the elephant’s
sign of defeat–he resisted, but is the child

of reason now. His straight trunk seems to say: when
what we hoped for came to nothing, we revived.
As loss could not ever alter Socrates’
tranquillity, equanimity’s contrived

by the elephant. With the Socrates of
animals as with Sophocles the Bee, on whose
tombstone a hive was incised, sweetness tinctures
his gravity. His held-up fore-leg for use

as a stair, to be climbed or descended with
the aid of his ear, expounds the brotherhood
of creatures to man the encroacher, by the
small word with the dot, meaning know–the verb bud.

These knowers “arouse the feeling that they are
allied to man” and can change roles with their trustees.
Hardship makes the soldier; then teachableness
makes him the philosopher–as Socrates,

prudently testing the suspicious thing, knew
the wisest is he who’s not sure that he knows.
Who rides on a tiger can never dismount;
asleep on an elephant, that is repose.

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