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.