Michelangelo, my mother would say,
Said every marble block held a figure
Waiting to be freed. I think Michelangelo
Spoke of his David; my mother, though,
Spoke of an elephant waiting patiently
(Of course) to be discovered so that
Everything that wasn’t it could be chipped away.
A few years ago, looking at a slab
Of Travertine marble that had somehow
Wound up behind a Cobble Hill store
Which called the odds and ends it sold antiques
I saw an elephant looking back.
The owner said it could be all mine
For ten dollars if I would haul it away.
Sculpting is hard and often I’d wonder
What purpose I served as I considered,
Re-considered, chipped, re-chipped, filed, re-filed,
And devoted long nights to polishing,
Wearing a mask lest silicosis
Lay me low so that I left behind
An awkward elephant only half-free.
At very long last, though, the job was done.
I took down my scaffolding and stepped back;
No matter where I stood the elephant
Refused to meet my eye. It was late;
It needs to sleep, I thought; in the morning
It will see the world into which it’s come
And we’ll have a chance to talk things over.
When young I acquired a totem animal --
A bear. He never told me his true name
But I called him Bruno. We’ve grown distant;
I have a muse who doesn’t much like bears
So I seldom see the two of them together.
Still, every year or two one of us is sure
To visit the other in a dream.
That night, Bruno dropped by in person
He looked well but older than he did in dreams
And was wearing old-fashioned bifocals.
As always, his manners were impeccable;
I brewed a large pot of herb tea. Caffeine
Made him wakeful. He drank many glasses
A sugar cube delicately poised between his teeth.
After talking of generalities
(His politics are to the right of mine
But not so far that we have to avoid them)
We came to the main topic. “I am,” he said
“No expert on non-carnivorous mammals;
Still, I believe the elephant you have freed
Is not the right one. It is Indian
“As you can tell from the shape of its trunk
Its fanlike ears, its dry wit. The one you wanted
Was African and had no more sense of humor
Than brave Hannibal himself. No help for it;
When the day comes, as it will, for you to storm
The gates of Hell you will not be the first
To be brought there by the wrong elephant.”