Regular readers of Gates of Vienna know my predilection for re-examining well-known poetry while keeping the great issue of our time in mind. The following work, by the late British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, is particularly apropos.
|Crow’s Elephant Totem Song|
|Once upon a time
God made this Elephant.
Then it was delicate and small
It was not freakish at all
|The Hyenas sang in the scrub You are beautiful—
They showed their scorched heads and grinning expressions
Like the half-rotted stumps of amputations—
We envy your grace
Waltzing through the thorny growth
O take us with you to the Land of Peaceful
O ageless eyes, of innocence and kindliness
Lift us from the furnaces
And furies of our blackened faces
Within these hells we writhe
Shut in behind the bars of our teeth
In hourly battle with death
The size of the earth
Having the strength of the earth
|So the Hyenas ran under the Elephant’s tail
As like a lithe and rubber oval
He strolled gladly around inside his ease
But he was not God no it was not his
To correct the damned
In rage in madness then they lit their mouths
They tore out his entrails
They divided him among their several hells
To cry all his separate pieces
Swallowed and inflamed
Amidst paradings of infernal laughter.
|At the Resurrection
The Elephant got himself together with correction
Deadfall feet and toothproof body and bulldozing bones
And completely altered brains
Behind aged eyes, that were wicked and wise.
|So through the orange blaze and blue shadow
Of the afterlife, effortless and immense,
The Elephant goes his own way, a walking sixth sense,
And opposite and parallel
The sleepless Hyenas go
Along a leafless skyline trembling like an oven roof
With a whipped run
Their shame-flags tucked hard down
Over the gutsacks
Crammed with putrefying laughter
Soaked black with the leakage and seepings
And they sing: “Ours is the land
Of loveliness and beautiful
Is the putrid mouth of the leopard
And the graves of fever
Because it is all we have—”
And they vomit their laughter.
|And the Elephant sings deep in the forest-maze
About a star of deathless and painless peace
But no astronomer can find where it is.
In the elephant we see the America that used to be — ingenuous, open-handed, optimistic about human nature (or in the allegory, Hyena-nature), not freakish or melancholy.
But then came the Hyenas.
Already residing in their hells, obsessed with death, they took advantage of the innocence and openness of America. But we were not God, and did not correct the damned, and our dusty entrails were strewn across the streets of New York, while the infernal laughter of the Hyenas echoed through the streets of Ramallah and Cairo.
And then there was the Resurrection. Deadfall feet? Definitely; marching through the mountain passes of Afghanistan and across the deserts of Iraq. Toothproof body? Absolutely; ask the Marines in Fallujah. Bulldozing bones? Without a doubt; the same ones that knocked over the statues of Saddam.
But what about the completely altered brains?
This is where the analogy falters: our brains are not that different. When we feel compelled to apologize to our enemies for violating their arcane customs, then we acknowledge that our brains are unchanged. When we consider making deals with the Hyenas because they can win an election in Gaza, then we are neither wicked nor wise.
The Hyenas are sleepless, but we are beginning to doze off. When we do, they are ready to come in again and light their mouths for another round. They do what they do because it is all they have.
We need to be a walking sixth sense; the star of peace will simply have to wait.