Saturday, April 24, 2010

Washing the Elephant

I had to take a long-ish bus trip with my little son the other day -- we had been to visit my ailing mother -- and before we left I happened by her local library and bought a bunch of ten-cent past-dated magazines for the trip, including a couple of last month's New Yorkers.  Toward the very end of the trip, I found this poem, by Barbara Ras, in one of them.

Washing the Elephant
Isn’t it always the heart that wants to wash
the elephant, begging the body to do it
with soap and water, a ladder, hands,
in tree shade big enough for the vast savannas
of your sadness, the strangler fig of your guilt,
the cratered full moon’s light fuelling
the windy spooling memory of elephant?

What if Father Quinn had said, “Of course you’ll recognize
your parents in Heaven,” instead of
“Being one with God will make your mother and father
pointless.” That was back when I was young enough
to love them absolutely though still fear for their place
in Heaven, imagining their souls like sponges full
of something resembling street water after rain.

Still my mother sent me every Saturday to confess,
to wring the sins out of my small baffled soul, and I made up lies
about lying, disobeying, chewing gum in church, to offer them
as carefully as I handed over the knotted handkerchief of coins
to the grocer when my mother sent me for a loaf of Wonder,
Land of Lakes, and two Camels.

If guilt is the damage of childhood, then eros is the fall of adolescence.
Or the fall begins there, and never ends, desire after desire parading
through a lifetime like the Ringling Brothers elephants
made to walk through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel
and down Thirty-fourth Street to the Garden.
So much of our desire like their bulky, shadowy walking
after midnight, exiled from the wild and destined
for a circus with its tawdry gaudiness, its unspoken

It takes more than half a century to figure out who they were,
the few real loves-of-your-life, and how much of the rest—
the mad breaking-heart stickiness—falls away, slowly,
unnoticed, the way you lose your taste for things
like popsicles unthinkingly.
And though dailiness may have no place
for the ones who have etched themselves in the laugh lines
and frown lines on the face that’s harder and harder
to claim as your own, often one love-of-your-life
will appear in a dream, arriving
with the weight and certitude of an elephant,
and it’s always the heart that wants to go out and wash
the huge mysteriousness of what they meant, those memories
that have only memories to feed them, and only you to keep them clean.


Melanie B said...

I love it too. Some wonderful images there.

BettyDuffy said...


Rodak said...

I liked the poem. But I found that I have previously agreed with Father Quinn.

Pentimento said...

I like the poem, Rodak. And I like the suggestion that "finding them in Him," as we understand Christ now on this side of life, is not the same thing as seeing them transfigured with Him in heaven.

Rodak said...

Thank you. It is most certainly presumptuous to even speculate about such things; but some of us have an irresistible impulse to do so.

Enbrethiliel said...


This poem breaks my heart and I don't know why.

Pentimento said...

It is extremely sad, I think, E, but with the sadness of resigation -- knowing you can't bring back the past no matter how you may have trifled with or botched it. That feeling is a big part of life for some of us.

Melanie B said...

Rodak, I like your take better than Father Quinn's. You suggest that we will indeed find them... in Him. Our desires for them will be purified, they will be purified.

Whereas Father' Quinn's "pointless" makes it seem like there is nothing to be found. There is nothing good in those relationships that will remain and be recognizable once the transfiguration has happened.

I prefer to believe that even our disordered attachments have at their heart a good that will be purified and preserved rather than that all will be discarded as dross.

Rodak said...

Melanie B.--
Thank you for the thoughtful reading. I agree that we must hope that nothing essential--nothing real--will be lost.