Issue 24: Judith Beveridge
The Dancing Elephant
Although she was moribund,
she started to sway her trunk and move
from side to side in a rotund dance.
She swayed like an iron bell
and I, too, started to sway, rolling
my weight as though I rode
the swell of her back, the swell
of her gait. Who could say
what led her to dance, to lean
in to the light, to move the grief
her limbs held and drum a rhythm
of passing age, of ending breath.
Who could say why her dance
kept on, an hour or more, or why
I keeled, canted, not wanting
her dance to stop though the cold
climbed up my legs and rain
streamed down in grey sheets.
She barely blinked or moved her eyes.
She focussed on the shuffling
of her feet. Her dark weight,
her slow carriage comforted me:
it was lunar, a manoeuvre
against gravity. I didn’t know
if she saw me conducting myself
in her sway, her partner
in this geo-strategy of goodbye.
Then she stopped, turned in a circle,
staggered, shivered as though
she felt some command sharp
as a bull hook. She began to shake
like a theatre marquee nearing
collapse. My old charge, who’d
learned to solve the impossible
equation of her weight and balance
one-legged on a pedestal, to lift
herself on her hind legs as if
she were made entirely of cloud.
Was this why she danced, to show
me her incalculable pain, what
her muscles and bones had endured
years in those chains, to show
how she danced for death
as she had danced for me? Yes—
I knew it—my cruelty. I’d goaded,
starved and whipped her until
broken, she became my spry,
spry dancer, my ballerina turning
and lifting her feet in the ring . . .
She flapped her ears, shuddered
once more . . . There was barely
any sound as she fell—just a small
insinuation of applause from the rain.
The merchant told me this scent will drive away
trouble and despair and purify the base instincts.
He drew it slowly under his nose, said it was made
from Himalayan poppy, that its oil was difficult
to extract, impossible to imitate, but when lit
would provide me with all I needed to know about
grace and ardent desire. He took another stick—
told me its scent was made from buds that blossomed
after dark, under the influence of a spotted nightjar
calling only during a new moon. Mixed with musk
it will stimulate kindness, infused with linalool
or aloe it will induce prophetic dreaming, if added
to saffron and the pulverized wood of a Persian oud,
it will link the mind to insight and maintain serenity
in the home. I asked if he had a scent that could help
me interpret the throbbing sensations in my right
eye and left leg and increase patience and calm.
He asked my zodiac sign then suggested a blend
of jasmine, pine, cinnamon and myrrh which must
be burned at dawn while I wear a ring of fire opal
and carry a handkerchief with an embroidered phoenix.
Later, as smoke rose from my rooms, I detected only
ground fungus, the dung of goats, the singed wool of a dead ram.
I cursed the seller who’d duped me, but he was right
about one thing, just as he said, the smell lasted long.
The Light on Marrin Bay
See this light’s unending glisk of spangly
wicks, micro-sparkles and flickery tinsel twists.
And look at the white swans drifting in—
they’re light and airy as meringue.
A few ducks dive in shadow under the overhang—
they bob up where the water
is more magnesium flare, more twinkling gloss
and mineral quiver. A boat
putts by: wash rolls along the shell-and-pebble
shore—a tintinnabula, while further off
yachts take the swell and masts conduct a sound
like plinking xylophones.
Now a breeze puckers the zinc glint near the pier,
jellyfish drift and turn to globes
or frilly lampshades; fish are small confections
wrapped in foil. Soon the sun
will put more silver on its dazzling empire, more
stacks of coin and crystal jewel
and sparking leaf—it’s not yet six a.m., the day
barely begun, but the water is spread
with largesse, all the tips of light that phosphoresce,
all the ferries and their morning stars,
the rowers’ oars turning, branded, lifting up
in morning’s flare. Each ruffle
or surface shirr a strobe of bewitchment. The ducks
dip down again—then rise flicking
decimals of light from their feathers. When they plunge
again—there are little zodiacs of bubbles.
Judith Beveridge lives in Sydney, Australia, and is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently Sun Music: New and Selected Poems which won the 2019 Prime Minister’s poetry prize. She has also been awarded the Christopher Brennan and Philip Hodgins Memorial Medals for excellence in Literature. She was poetry editor for Meanjin from 2005-2016. Her work has been studied in schools and universities and has been translated into several languages.
Copyright © 2020 by Judith Beveridge, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.